Unlike his more well-known namesake, our Alex Rodriguez plays the trombone. He also blogs at Lubricity. And writes for Jazz.com. And interns with Josh Jackson at WBGO's The Checkout. And is earning an M.A. in Jazz History and Research — the only program of its kind — at Rutgers. For Jazz Now, he recommends music for new jazz fans based in part on the bands' live acts. —Ed.
I didn't discover jazz until 1997, when I was 12 years old and learning to play the trombone in my middle school band in Portland, Ore. By then, the general attitude of those presenting it to me was historically-oriented — the era's prevailing ideology reached me through the school music curriculum. The first jazz recording that I remember hearing was Glenn Miller's "In The Mood," from a sixth grade music appreciation class. The first jazz record that I bought was Bags' Groove by Miles Davis, at the behest of my jazz band director.
My interest in the trombone soon led me to J.J. Johnson, who died when I was a junior in high school. I fell in love with the sounds of many of the music's ghosts: Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, Thad Jones, Al Grey and many, many others — most of whom had also already died (save Rollins, of course). I have fond memories of trips to Everyday Music in downtown Portland, the only record store in town that I knew had a reliable supply of used jazz CDs.
Eventually, my conversation with the past was interrupted by actual concerts. I didn't start going to see live music until high school, when I would see live jazz at the Port Townsend Jazz Festival, occasionally check out a show at Portland's only jazz club (Jimmy Mak's), or catch a concert at Portland's Crystal Ballroom. I remember catching New Orleans-based funk band Galactic from the very front of the stage; I prided myself on being so close to Maceo Parker's trombonist Greg Boyer at a show a few months later that he almost emptied his spit valve on my forehead. None of these acts were particularly groundbreaking from a jazz standpoint, but they certainly stand out in the development of my relationship to music today.
As a Master's Degree candidate in Jazz History and Research, my conversation with the music's past continues. But the new jazz being created by today's outstanding musicians provides an important frame for the historical work. I sense a changing paradigm in the way today's musicians are having their own interaction with the music's history; the rapid development of the jazz community online has mirrored that shifting trend. Through these networks, as well as my recent move to the New York City area, I've been hipped to a lot of great stuff that's being done in the name of jazz.
1. Rebirth Brass Band, Rebirth For Life (Tipitina's)
I became aware of this group when I was still in high school, but I never caught them live until my sophomore year in college. The experience confirmed what I had always been told (which comes through to a lesser extent on the recordings): these guys can make your booty shake like nobody else in the business. I don't think I've compared anyone to a deity as many times as I have Phil Frazier, the group's leader and powerfully funky tubist (as in: oh man, Phil Frazier is a GOD!). Released in 2006, Rebirth For Life is the group's first post-Katrina record, but it maintains the loose, hard-partying spirit that defines their sound. "Stereo" is a typically fun and exciting groove that features typical ensemble riffs and brilliant, gutsy solos.
"Stereo," from Rebirth Brass Brand, Rebirth For Life (Tipitina's). Released 2006.
Purchase: Amazon MP3 / iTunes
2. Soulive, Up Here! (Royal Family)
Soulive was the paragon of jazz-funk musical virtues for many of my peers in high school, but I didn't get to hear the band play until I found myself attending school in their backyard of Western Massachusetts. (In fact, I took the same Jazz Theory course that guitarist Eric Krasno had taken nearly a decade earlier.) Its shows in Northampton were always ones that I could take my "non-jazz" friends to and have a great time. Soulive's most recent release, Up Here!, features some nifty production and the groovy fare that got Blue Note Records CEO Bruce Lundvall's attention in 2001. Although Blue Note is no longer producing its records, it's still one of the most effective purveyors of modern jazz-funk, borrowing as much from the organ trio styles of Jimmy Smith as from the beats of hip-hop. "Hat Trick" features a typically hard-driving drum beat, infectious grooves, and tight breaks; the addition of two saxophones to the mix adds echoes of Average White Band's "Pick Up the Pieces."
"Hat Trick" from Soulive, Up Here! (Royal Family). Neal Evans, Hammond B-3 organ; Eric Krasno, guitar; Alan Evans, drums; Sam Kininger and Ryan Zoidis, saxophones. Released 2009.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
3. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam)
One of the few jazz musicians who has used the Internet to great marketing effect, Argue released Infernal Machines right around the same time that I began my own blogging enterprise. This album was actually the first that I had purchased in a long time, and I did not miss the $8 after listening to the whole thing. The aesthetic concepts certainly challenge my assumptions as a jazz listener, but in a way that is brimming with excitement and still swinging like mad. "Transit," a feature for (fellow Pacific Northwest native) Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, is the best example of Argue's skillful mix of harmonic complexity, propulsive swing, virtuosic solo performance and "steampunk" hipness.
"Transit," from Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam). Darcy James Argue, composer; featuring Ingrid Jensen, trumpet. Released 2009.
Purchase: New Amsterdam / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
4. JD Allen, Shine! (Sunnyside)
I became aware of Allen and his recent release through NPR/WBGO's Live at the Village Vanguard series last month. The amazing quality of the webcast gave me an idea of Allen's engaging live set, featuring short improvisations and seamless transitions from one song to the next. The recording comes across slightly differently, with longer pauses between songs, but benefits from the same concision in song forms. The saxophone trio setting is a tempting vehicle for self-indulgence, but Allen keeps his compositions pleasantly short and to the point. Each brings a slight shift in feel or flavor, but maintains the overall timbre and adventurous improvisation throughout the 12 tracks. "Sonhouse" features my favorite melodic motif, backed by impeccable percussive drive from bass and drums, and impressive interactivity between all three musicians.
"Sonhouse," from JD Allen, Shine! (Sunnyside). JD Allen, tenor sax; Gregg August, bass; Rudy Royston, drums. Released 2009.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
5. Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets +2, Echoes of Ethnicity (Owl Studios)
As a trombone player, it's important for me to give some love to those who are representing the instrument on today's scene. Vincent Gardner, brother of bandleader and trumpet player Derrick Gardner, is one of today's best. When he's not playing with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he apparently writes great tunes for small group jazz. His brother Derrick is no slouch, either — in fact, each of the horn players in this ensemble really shine. The album's overall effect is both harmonically modern and breezy; the latter comes courtesy of a consistent, driving swing. "Mercury Blvd" is one of Vincent's compositions — most of the others are Derrick's — but it exemplifies the quiet creativity that underlies most of the album. And it features a killing trombone solo to boot.
"Mercury Blvd," from Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets +2, Echoes of Ethnicity (Owl Studios). Derrick Gardner, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Rob Dixon, tenor sax; Brad Leali, alto sax; Jason Marshall, baritone sax; Rick Roe, piano; Gerald Cannon, bass; Donald Edwards, drums. Released 2009.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
1. Hot Club of Detroit, Night Town (Mack Avenue): Skillfully reinterpreting the sounds of the late Django Reinhardt, HCOD makes "Gypsy Jazz" hip again.
2. Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto): When the two giants of jam collided anew a few years ago, this made quite a splash — these guys stretch out to the extreme.
3. Edmar Castaneda, Entre Cuerdas (ArtistShare): The virtuosic Colombian jazz harpist's trio features another one of the best young trombonists out there: Marshall Gilkes.
4. Gerald Clayton, Two-Shade (ArtistShare): Absolutely my favorite young jazz pianist on the scene — Clayton has amazing ears and a sound that's easy to get hooked on.
5. Conrad Herwig, The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter (Half Note): Conrad Herwig is one of the modern jazz trombone greats, and he's one of the few that can put together a Latin jazz hybrid that explodes with rhythmic energy.
Which five albums would you pick to introduce an open-minded listener to the jazz of today? Let us know: leave us a comment, or write about it on your own blog — and let us know where to find it. For more information on this series, read the introduction.