What a strange year it’s been. I found myself lost in Texas for the better part of 2005, but I managed to find some good music that’s done much to allay my fears, humble my ego and give me a happier sense of purpose. It’s been an interesting year for music. Nothing for the ages, but good stuff nonetheless.
New In 2005
Bill Frisell – East/West (Nonesuch): Hard to imagine a year without Bill Frisell in a best list of mine. But this one’s live and features two trios (changing out bassists), one captured in Oakland, California in 2004 and one in New York City in 2003. What’s remarkable is the difference in the two sets. The first one (West) positively smokes with two well-chosen and beautifully executed covers (Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan), two new originals and two features from previous Frisell records. The second disc (East) contains more of the folksy charm Frisell has lately come to be known for with several new tunes, country covers and three jazz standards (Gershwin, Mancini and a beautiful “People”). Not at all like the equally fascinating Richter 258, but witty, beautiful and essential nonetheless.
Jenny Scheinman – 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone): Yes, I’m sure this is not the new Neil Diamond album, which, although I’m dying to hear that too, probably shares more than the same generic title. This album overflows with a beautiful simplicity that producer Rick Rubin probably enforced on the over-glammed and overly-enjoyable crooner too. Ms. Scheinman is a marvelous violinist – manning an instrument that’s admittedly hard to listen to in a jazz context. However, she’s an extremely tender and pleasingly at times, shy, melodist. Her songs have a storybook quality to them and the packaging (another piece of fine presentation from the incredible Cryptogramophone label) presents these dozen melodies in a complimentary way. I bought it because of Bill Frisell’s presence throughout, and while his influence is certainly evident in the folk-like compositions, he – like the other five musicians involved in these 12 songs (including trumpeter Ron Miles) – absolutely never impose their will upon the story-like quality of these child-like anthems. One just walks away impressed by Ms. Scheinman’s achievement. A true pleasure that leaves you looking forward to more.
Manu Katché – Neighbourhood (ECM): This one took me completely by surprise. It’s one of those moody jazz explorations that digs its way deep into your psyche and doesn’t let go. Some might find it endlessly repetitive or dull, like the person who’s had to listen to it repeatedly with me this year. But it’s hard to deny the musicianship at play here. The European rhythm section sounds much better together than an American like me would have initially presumed. The fear factor for me was the presence of ECM mainstay Jan Garbarek (essentially Katché’s employer for the last 15 years or so). But his piercing, brittle tonefields never overwhelm or overtake the dark, noir mood drummer Katché establishes here. Katché himself is barely even noticeable on drums. It’s like Paul Motian inside out, if that’s even feasible. Katché has more smoldering, intoxicating things on his mind. He’s all about melody and mood here, and it makes for probably one of the finest listening experiences I’ve enjoyed this year. “November 99” (without Garbarek) is worth the price of admission.
Lalo Schifrin – Kaleidoscope: Jazz Meets The Symphony #6 (Aleph): Number six in any series doesn’t sound like much to hope for. Imagine Rocky 6. Or, more likely, Rush Hour 6. Maybe that’s why this one is such a thrill. I’m probably partial to the man, since I cover his career on my website. However, this one is worth hearing. Schifrin has lately been discovering the joys and rewards of concert performances. Here, he combines his jazz and classical (and film) tendencies almost seamlessly in – a first for him – an unexpected tribute to himself. Several of the performances rework others’ themes he first explored on his 1964 Verve album, New Fantasy. A real treat is the fact that the man himself can be heard – positively burning! – on piano throughout. Schifrin’s own Dizzy-ing “Jazztette” and the wicked “Peanut Vendor” must be heard to be believed. Schifrin’s best sounds in quite some time.
Alan Pasqua – My New Old Friend (Cryptogramophone): From the new-to-me Cryptogramophone label. I’ve never heard Alan Pasqua as a pianist before. Many might compare him to Bill Evans here. But I’d suggest this is what the overly celebrated legend might have sounded like if he had kicked his habit or found a little light in his life. Pasqua has the dark streak so prominent (and appealing) in so much of Evans’s work, yet Pasqua has a whimsy, a lightness and an almost practical joke-like sensibility that’s much more life affirming. It’s a rewarding combination – passion and participation without the pain and the pull of darker demons. The pianist here heads up a remarkably simpatico trio featuring Darek Oles on bass and Peter Erskine on drums. Both accompanists have had extensive experience accompanying singers and that probably goes a long way in explaining the set’s overwhelming melodic appeal. At times, Pasqua reminds me of other pianists like Bob James (who recorded with Erskine) whose acoustic flirtations show a different side of their talent – a side their listeners and fans may have never heard before or a side that helps explain their approach in a different way. Pasqua’s originals are well worth hearing but the few standards (the Bill Evans favorite “You Must Believe In Spring,” “All The Things You Are,” “Body And Soul” and the surprise inclusions of “Witchita Lineman” and the Chaplin tune “Smile” that Oscar Peterson mastered so nicely previous to this) are certainly worth the price of admission. Highly recommended.
Honorable mention: John Holloway/Jaap ter Linden/Lars Ulrick Mortensen – Veracini Sonatas (ECM), Paul Motian – I Have The Room Above Her (ECM), Joe Lovano - Joyous Enounter (Blue Note), The Chris Walden Big Band – Home Of My Heart (Origin), Jimmy Ponder – What’s New (HighNote).
Wish I could have heard: The latest from Wallace Roney (HighNote), Vijay Iyer (Savoy Jazz) and Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch).
Gabor Szabo – Spellbinder (Verve): Finally. This is, perhaps, one of guitarist Gabor Szabo’s two most respected albums (High Contrast is the other). There’s an incredible artistry and a truly amazing originality on display here. What’s more, there’s a sweet, delicate innocence in the playing that predates any ego or pre-conceived atmosphere. The one everyone will clamor for is the original version of “Gypsy Queen”, which (Carlos) Santana made world-famous in 1970 (as an aside, the man himself remains a devout worshipper of Gabor Szabo’s musical artistry and will probably oversee a long-held dream to release his own hand-picked compilation of Gabor’s music in 2006). But the songs worth hearing here are the less known “Cheetah’ (oops, my finger slipped to the repeat button again) and the aptly-named “Spellbinder”. The covers, which seem to favor the odd coupling of Sinatra and Sonny & Cher, should be heard to be believed. This is the album to convert the casual listener to the incredible charms of Gabor Szabo. A masterpiece.
Ennio Morricone – Crime And Dissonance (Ipecac): The most over-compiled and over-celebrated film composer other than John Williams finally gets a compilation worth hearing. Issued on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label and sporting apt words of introduction from Morricone-ophile John Zorn, this set thankfully avoids the usual spaghetti western themes, soapy hits and over-sampled easy bossa-lite trash and concentrates on the dark, spooky and mysterious source cues from a series of mostly thriller films Morricone scored between 1968 and 1981. If you can only afford to get one Morricone set, this is the one to have. This is everything GDM’s 2001 compilation Psycho Morricone hoped to be. But at 30 tracks, this one is going to be hard to beat. This is the music that makes a Morricone score worth hearing.
Grassella Oliphant – The Grass Roots/The Grass Is Greener (Collectables): A surprise blast – or blip – from the past. Drummer Grassella Oliphant made a few recordings in the early 1960s with Tony Scott, Herman Foster (Lou Donaldson’s pianist at the time) and Shirley Scott/Stanley Turrentine, and then recorded these two excellent albums under his own unusual name in 1965. Why he completely vanished from music after that is a mystery. But today he manages a golf course in New Jersey, so four decades later it’s good to know he’s still swinging. Both these albums, originally released on the soulful Atlantic label, strive toward the stricter Blue Note thing, with vibisit Bobby Hutcherson prominent on the first set and Grant Green on the second set. Both sets also include tenor man Harold Ousley, sounding like a cross between Blue Noters Stanley Turrentine and Joe Henderson in the first set and, oddly, like Blue alto-man Lou Donaldson on the second set (paired with Donaldson’s rhythm team of Green and organ man John Patton). Clark Terry growls pleasingly through much of the second set too. Soulful jazz in the strictest sense and utterly intoxicating.
Honorable mention: Stanley Turrentine – That’s Where It’s At (Blue Note), Lonnie Smith – Turning Point (Blue Note), The Gary McFarland Orchestra Special Guest Soloist Bill Evans (FiveFour); Cannonball Adderley – Domination (Capital Jazz).