The Best Jazz Albums of 2009
It's tough to top Ella Fitzgerald. Plus: A bonus list—the best albums of the decade.
This article has been updated as of July 29, 2010.
1. Ella Fitzgerald, Twelve Nights in Hollywood (Verve).The best jazz album of 2009 was recorded in 1961 and '62, a four-CD boxed set of Ella Fitzgerald and her trio, performing live in a small club on the Sunset Strip. The 77 tracks, all previously unissued (!), catch the First Lady of Song at the peak of her career and in top form, the club's intimacy sparking some of her most relaxed and inventive swing,
her most breathtaking balladry,
and even a flirtatious bawdiness rarely heard on her studio sessions or stadium gigs.
2. Keith Jarrett, Paris/London: Testament (ECM). Jarrett has recorded many live solo concerts over the years, but these two dates, spread out across three CDs, are the most intense, virtuosic, and emotionally probing ever captured on disc, and that's saying a lot. He weaves dense clusters and jangled rhythms, like late Debussy with swing (or, to put it another way, like Cecil Taylor);
coaxes lyrical ballads at once rhapsodic and delicate;
and, in a surprise, pounds out a feverish gospel that borders on rock 'n' roll.
All of it is completely improvised and utterly riveting.
3. Jim Hall & Bill Frisell, Hemispheres (ArtistShare). Two of the great guitar improvisers, a generation apart, collaborate for a two-CD set of inventions, standards, gentle blues,
and stirring elegies.
Disc 1 consists of duets; Disc 2 adds Joey Baron on drums and Scott Colley on bass. Both sessions sparkle and shimmer with creative zest and respect. (Available only from ArtistShare.com.)
4. Steve Kuhn Trio w/ Joe Lovano, Mostly Coltrane (ECM). Kuhn, a lyrical but hardly lilting pianist who briefly played with John Coltrane in 1960, aims for a gentler portrait of the tenor god, stretching the cadence, smoothing the tempo, without blunting the intensity—and, somehow, it works, especially on Trane's spiritual chants ("Welcome") and romantic ballads ("Central Park West").
Joe Lovano, one of the lustier (and busier) tenor players around, assumes the mantle with aplomb; Joey Baron combines some of Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic energy and Roy Haynes' swing-driven splash, fusing the traits of Trane's two most prominent drummers.
5. Fly, Sky & Country (ECM). This trio of Mark Turner on tenor sax, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Jeff Ballard on drums is something of a wonder—simultaneously loose, tight, airy, intricate, elliptical, melodic, carefully balanced but not at all stuffy. It's free-form jazz in its freshest spirit.
6. Dave Douglas, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf Music). The latest album from Dave Douglas' Brass Ecstasy quintet—Douglas on trumpet, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Luis Bonilla on trombone, Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Nasheet Waits on drums—is a rouser. Like many Douglas albums, it features original tunes and Douglas-arranged pop covers (in this case, of tunes by Otis Redding, Hank Williams, and Rufus Wainwright), and it's serious fun, a blast of burnished swing.
7. Nellie McKay, Normal As Blueberry Pie (Verve). The snark-mistress of Get Away From Me comes up with a tribute-album to Doris Day—and it's a sheer delight. Not only did she write all the arrangements and play most of the instruments but she sings with a jaw-dropping purity of tone and a wholesome sensuality.
There's a playfulness to her approach (no one today could sing "Send Me No Flowers" with a completely straight face), but nothing like parody.
8. Masada Quintet, Stolas: The Book of Angels, Vol. 12 (Tzadik). Protean composer-impresario John Zorn treks on with his Masada series—tunes, over 500 of them now, built on one of the two "Jewish scales" (a major scale with the second note flat or a minor scale with the fourth note sharp)—but this time with the peripatetic Joe Lovano playing tenor sax, instead of Zorn blowing alto, and the long-standing quartet (Dave Douglas, trumpet; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums) augmented by Uri Caine on piano. It's a bit cooler, even mellower, than most Masada albums, but there's still that high-energy blues and hora swing.
9. The Bad Plus, For All I Care (Heads Up). This time out, the crazy-like-a-fox postmodernists of The Bad Plus—pianist-extraordinaire Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King—cover not only the likes of Kurt Cobain
and the Bee Gees, but also Elliott Carter and Igor Stravinsky.
A few tracks also feature a singer, Wendy Lewis, a fixture of the Minneapolis indie-rock scene who sounds a bit like Nico with wit. It's an album of jolly and gripping surprises.
10. Ran Blake, Driftwoods (Tomkins Square). Blake may be the most oddly compelling jazz pianist around—he can't swing for more than a few bars; he changes keys at random intervals—yet there's magic here. His chords, dissonant but heartfelt, waft out of a dream. He has called himself a filmmaker without a camera, and his music has a cinematic flavor, a narrative drive. This album is devoted to his favorite singers: Chris Connor, Billie Holiday, Jackie Paris, His take on "Dancing in the Dark" is particularly haunting.
You can get lost in Ran Blake's pedal work, and it's a detour worth taking.
Postscript, July 2010: If I had heard the following two albums of 2009 before I assembled this list, I certainly would have included them: James Darcy Argue & The Secret Society, Infernal Machines(New Amsterdam); and John Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet, Royal Toast (Sunnyside).
BONUS: The Best Jazz Albums of the Decade
The decade unearthed a treasure trove of archival gems, previously unreleased—in some cases, long-forgotten—recordings that expanded or altered our impressions of the musicians on display. So here are two lists: the decade's best new albums, and its best newly releasedhistorical albums (i.e., excluding "reissues" of material that's already been out there). In the latter list, I cite the date of the recording, then the date of the release.
The Decade's Best New Jazz Albums:
1. Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006)
2. Jason Moran, Modernistic (Blue Note, 2002)
3. Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live (Verve, 2002)
4. John Zorn's Bar Kokhba Sextet, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 11 (Tzadik, 2005)
5. Keith Jarrett Trio, The Out of Towners (ECM, 2004)
6. Maria Schneider, Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007)
7. Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones(Nonesuch, 2001)
8. James Carter, Chasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic, 2000)
9. Ted Nash, Sidewalk Meetings (Arabesque, 2001)
10. Geri Allen / Dave Holland / Jack DeJohnette, The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.