At NPR Music, Mike Katzif is something of a Swiss army knife. He writes about plenty of not-jazz for Song Of The Day and a variety of other features. He's also the keeper of all things podcast throughout the entire NPR.org universe. But he comes from a background as a jazz guitarist, and at A Blog Supreme, he gets to write about this music. His Jazz Now list introduces new listeners to "contemporary and personally meaningful records." —Ed.
People who know me probably know that baseball is my favorite sport. It has a beautiful history and an amazing folklore. Admittedly, it also features deliberate and slow-paced action drawn out over a long summer, and — let's face it — a lot of nuance and minutiae that the average person doesn't care about. There's no way I would introduce a friend to baseball with old newspaper boxscore clippings, reruns on ESPN Classic or historical artifacts. As important and fascinating as that stuff can be, the first thing I'd do is say, "Let's go see a game."
The same goes for any type of music, but especially in jazz. Yet anyone who's ever spent time in a jazz history survey knows that most of the time is spent with the classics and little else. By the time you get to anything modern or recognizable, the class is over.
Up until recently (thanks, burgeoning Jazz Internets!), rare were there opportunities to learn about or talk publicly in the ways of today's jazz. For novices newer jazz can be daunting. Listeners need time to attune their ears to the language, and yet we drop them into this foreign territory and say "Good luck." Is it any wonder why some people get turned off?
Instead, why not start with the now and work backward? It's important to look back and know the past, but were I to teach one of those history of jazz lectures, I would introduce great artists creating exciting work that you can go out and experience in person (fine bourbon or craft brew in hand, natch).
In approaching this list of five great jazz albums of the last decade (give or take), I treated it as a way to introduce five contemporary and personally meaningful records. These are packages I would use as an introduction to jazz for those still on the bench — but looking to play.
1. Medeski Martin & Wood, Tonic (Blue Note)
You can tell a lot about a musician from a stripped-down, acoustic performance. Such is the case with Medeski Martin and Wood's live classic Tonic, which pares away the Hammond B-3 organ, fuzzed-out Wurlitzer and Hofner bass for a simple piano, bass and drums. MMW earned crossover appeal thanks to their funkier tendencies, but they maintained cred in other circles for their more experimental breakdowns and inventive communication. In this cozy setting, the trio masters tension-and-release playing, slowly building a song only to deconstruct it into blissful cacophony. For fans who were already sold on their more groove-based material, this is a great segue into more off-kilter pianists like Cecil Taylor or Thelonious Monk.
"Seven Deadlies," from Medeski Martin & Wood, Tonic (Blue Note). John Medeski, piano; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums. Released 2000.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
2. Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!) (Atlantic)
Though not a traditional jazz album by any means Marc Ribot's two Cubanos Postizos (Prosthetic Cubans) albums were key in introducing me to Ribot's body of work. They were also fundamental in my own guitar-playing development as a music student — one of my trios frequently played "Aqui Como Alla," a tune from their first album. Since that time, I have always been drawn to Ribot's angular approach to guitar and his tenacity for musical shape-shifting in many different settings. He plays experimental free jazz with John Zorn, dissonant rock with Tom Waits, fiery soul-jazz with MMW, and much more. To get just a taste of Ribot's guitar prowess and to hear some well executed Cuban-by-way-of-downtown-NYC music, Muy Divertido! is worth checking out. Then head straight for his solo album Saints.
"El Gaucho Rojo" from Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos, Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!) (Atlantic). Released 2000.
Purchase: Amazon MP3 / iTunes
3. Dave Holland Quintet, Not for Nothin' (ECM)
Unlike many supergroups, the Dave Holland Quintet is all about the group. Not For Nothing finds Holland's band in its classic lineup (is it too soon to deem it "classic"?) solidifying its approach to collective improvisation. Where other groups might be content to blow over some chord changes, here the soloists display an affinity for spontaneous composition that allows melodies to overlap each other, like dialogue in a Robert Altman film. Fueled by Holland's inspired bass and Kilson's stellar drumming, Not For Nothing is full of fantastic, intricate arrangements and stunning musicianship.
"Billows Of Rhythm," from Dave Holland Quintet, Not for Nothing (ECM). Dave Holland, bass; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Billy Kilson, drums. Released 2001.
Purchase: Amazon MP3 / iTunes
4. Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf)
Whether it was trumpet-violin-accordion album Charms Of The Night Sky or his Lester Bowie-meets-New Orleans brass band Brass Ecstasy, trumpeter (and occasional Blog Supreme guest contributor) Dave Douglas' solo works have always been very project-minded. The ultimate example is Keystone, a brilliant-in-its-simplicity concept that sought to create alternate scores to the films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Pairing a lineup of trumpet, saxophone, Fender Rhodes, bass, drums and turntables, the music is dark and brooding, in the vein of a modern Bitches Brew sound. That music holds up exceptionally well by itself, but takes on a whole new level when you hear it set to the images of Arbuckle's 1915 film "Fatty and Mabel Adrift." It's a beautiful and haunting experience that only an innovative jazz thinker like Douglas could come up with.
"Just Another Murder" from Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf). Dave Douglas, trumpet; Jamie Saft, keyboards; Gene Lake, drums; Marcus Strickland, saxophones; Brad Jones, bass; DJ Olive, turntables. Released 2006.
Purchase: Greenleaf / Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
5. Masada Quintet, Stolas: Book of Angels Vol. 12 (Tzadik)
Composer and saxophonist John Zorn can be a tricky artist to tackle. His work on his label Tzadik is prolific and diverse, but there aren't many clear entry points for new listeners. But when Zorn recently began his Book of Angels series — where his vast Masada songbook is reinterpreted by other artists — it allowed him the opportunity to separate himself from his own compositions. Volume 12, called Stolas, is the most recent, and strangely enough the most accessible entry to date. While the configuration maintains key members from the original Masada quartet, the inclusion of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano is intriguing. Known as a much more deliberate and classically melodic jazz soloist than Zorn, Lovano provides an inspired juxtaposition in styles. It might not be the most experimental of Zorn-related releases, but this record serves as a perfect introduction to Tzadik's jazz meets Eastern European folk music mindset.
"Rahtiel" from Masada Quintet, Stolas: Book of Angels Vol. 12 (Tzadik). Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Uri Caine, piano; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; John Zorn, alto saxophone. Released 2009.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes
1. Brad Mehldau, Largo (Warner, 2002); Live In Tokyo (Nonesuch, 2003)
2. Isotope 217, The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey, 1997)
3. Bill Frisell, Blues Dream (Nonesuch, 2001)
4. Groundtruther (Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte), Latitude (feat. Greg Osby), Longitude (feat. DJ Logic), Altitude (feat. John Medeski) (Thirsty Ear, 2004-2005-2007)
5. SF Jazz Collective, SF Jazz Collective Vol. 2 (Nonesuch, 2006)
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.