Jazz And The 50 Most Important Albums Of 2000-2009

The Bad Plus. i i

hide captionThe Bad Plus: hot important or not?

John Christenson
The Bad Plus.

The Bad Plus: hot important or not?

John Christenson

Yesterday on All Songs Considered, NPR's The Decade In Music multi-pronged retrospective continues with a look at the 50 Most Important Recordings of the 2000s.

Two jazz records made the final tally: The Bad Plus' These Are The Vistas and Jason Moran's Black Stars. I had something to do with both being on there, but certainly wasn't the only one making decisions about what made or didn't make the list. These things are completely unscientific (how to define "important" in the first place?), which is the point, as far as I see: they're meant to generate discussion. Speaking of which, I done did some talking on the podcast too.

I also wrote some blurbs about both records, which I want to discuss and expand upon. I also want to ask: what other records could have made the list? But first: Should there even be jazz records on here in the first place?

Heresy, I know, to even suggest that to this crowd. But suppose that "importance" has something to do with how many people (musicians and fans alike) responded to it, and more-or-less heard it at all. Stacked up against some of the biggest touchstones in pop, it would be hard to justify the inclusion of even The Bad Plus' record, arguably the biggest modern jazz album to "cross over" to the mainstream this decade. (Yes, over Esperanza Spalding and Medeski, Martin and Wood.) One could make the argument that if jazz ought to be represented at all, then a Diana Krall record should make the list: that's more what the average person who listens to any music is liable to see as the face of jazz this decade.

Granted, it would also follow that Panda Bear should be off the list and Miley Cyrus on, or that The Velvet Underground should be off the 1969 list because nobody paid the band any mind at the time. So let us accept some vague notion of future historical importance and abandon this meta-narrative digression like a cheesy science-fiction loophole. Moving on ...

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The Bad Plus, These Are The Vistas

What I wrote: The fact that most everybody in the stratified jazz world was talking about this record circa 2003 is evidence enough of its importance. The fact that it got people outside "jazz" to listen was the real coup, though. That'll happen when you play covers of Nirvana, Aphex Twin and Blondie as an acoustic piano trio, sure. But it's far more than novelty appeal: Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King reverently used the tunes as frameworks for distinct, original improvisation. Plus, knottily textured originals, nutso percussion and bass that would challenge your car's Alpine subwoofer. Love it or hate it, it was impossible to ignore — and will you look at that, the musical ideas had staying power, too.

I wrote about this record for Jazz Now too, and it struck me then that this particular album catalyzed a generation of jazz fans and musicians. The members of The Bad Plus weren't the first to do modern pop covers, but they certainly got the most attention for it. So their record reached a lot of fans and students with the overt message that jazz improvisation can converse with contemporary music — that it wasn't just an officially-sanctioned blast from the past. (Perhaps it was a little obvious, but how else would they have gotten that point past Arts section editors across the country?) There was a lot more to this album than "Smells Like Teen Spirit," of course, but the rock meets jazz aesthetic of three white guys from the Upper Midwest was clearly the hook.

Jason Moran. i i

hide captionHave we framed the question correctly around Jason Moran?

Clay Patrick McBride
Jason Moran.

Have we framed the question correctly around Jason Moran?

Clay Patrick McBride

Jason Moran, Black Stars

What I wrote: Jazz has spent its last 50 years dealing with both the promise and difficulties posed by free improvisation. On his third album, a 26-year-old Jason Moran embraced its potential for dazzling brilliance by couching it in an inclusive, even schizoid take on jazz history. He embraces post-bop as readily as he reconfigures the music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and early stride piano masters. The second step was to get multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, a pioneer in making the avant approachable, to guest star (at age 77). As it turns out, the final result is full of density and percussive pianism — but also warm moments of strained beauty — all supported by powerful technique from all involved.

If we were just talking about the arrival of a promising new voice, I could also have picked one of Moran's Bandwagon trio albums with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits, either Facing Left or the live Village Vanguard recording. But Black Stars, I think, speaks especially to what's happened between "free" and "mainstream" jazz recently: that to today's young musicians, they're both toolkits to be mined and recombined at will. Ok, sure, so artists have been doing this since free jazz first emerged — see the Blue Note catalog circa 1964. But here was someone from the middle-class, half-academic training system that is modern jazz education, inculcated in a Jazz History of which he was several generations removed, and mixing and matching with uniquely 21st-century sounds to create a Frankenstein-like jazz. (Having Jaki Byard as your teacher helps.) Speaking of the Blue Note catalog circa 1964, Sam Rivers was on here too, which is also important: the 2000s featured great music from veterans like him. Not to mention that this was Moran's statement album, the one which landed him the full attention of jazz people.

Funny how both albums are somewhat alike: at the core of both are heavy, virtuosic piano trios striving for an edgy sort of originality. This in an age where the absence of pianos and chordal instruments is as or more common than ever. But I think these two records readily highlight different things about their creation which speak for the age at large.

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What else could have (or should have made) the top 50? I took a quick Twitter poll last week, and found some submissions worth considering:

—Composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman (@thestevelehman) nominated Craig Taborn's Junk Magic as "Pretty clearly the most advanced/refined example of 'electro-jazz' for the past 10 years." [That quotation is expanded from Twitter abbreviations.] I am inclined to agree. A few others mentioned David Torn, who is up that alley too.

—We got a lot of love for veteran musicians, and especially "free jazz" pioneers: Ornette Coleman, William Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, Bill Dixon, and so forth. With jazz artists living longer than ever, there are a lot of older artists who are making essential and definitive recordings. I might also nominate Wayne Shorter's Alegria, Abbey Lincoln's Abbey Sings Abbey, and almost any of Charles Lloyd's records for consideration. Andrew Hill's Time Lines would be on a top 10 of the decade list of mine.

The usual suspects deserve a mention too: Dave Douglas, Vijay Iyer, Brad Mehldau, Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jim Black's AlasNoAxis and Brian Blade all made ground-shifting recordings this decade. That deserves to be acknowledged ...

Personally, I would have also liked to have seen:

—A representative of big band jazz. Why anyone makes the economic decision to do it regularly any more baffles me — paying so many folks has to be an unprofitable operation in many cases — but in an age jump-started by innovations from Maria Schneider and Guillermo Klein, the format seems to be experiencing a rebirth. From the recent recorded output of Dave Douglas, John Hollenbeck and Roy Hargrove, it seems as if it's a thing which successful musicians still dream of doing once they can afford it.

—Something that indicates the trajectory of Latin jazz this decade; it's not just a synonym for Afro-Cuban jazz any more. There's something tremendously exciting about what's happening now with musicians like Ed Simon, David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, Jerry Gonzalez, Claudia Acuna, Luciana Souza, Dafnis Prieto and many others; they're generating studied but wholly natural and immediately appealing syntheses of folkloric traditions and modern jazz. The more I listen to Miguel Zenon's Esta Plena, fusing Puerto Rico's plena with a very contemporary bag, the more I think it's a premier representative of this trend. Moreover, globalism has filtered through jazz thoroughly: see Either/Orchestra, or Rudresh Mahanthappa, or like half the ECM jazz catalog this decade ...

Vocal jazz. More on this yet to come.

Indeed, more on all this later. For now: What other jazz records would you have put on a list of The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings?

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