Jazz music, news and views

Friday, December 29, 2006

SWO Top Ten of 2006

In alphabetical order by artist (with self-indulgent commentary):

Dave Douglas: Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf)
On its face, Meaning and Mystery isn't quite as "conceptual" as Douglas's other projects, but the musical adventure is still there, and of course there's that old adage about books and their covers. Donny McCaslin's slithering tenor lines complement Douglas well in the trumpeter's brassier moments. James Genus and Clarence Penn are longtime rhythm section-mates and it shows. Against the nocturnal sonic backdrop of Uri Caine's Fender Rhodes, this is one sexy disc. Standout tracks include the slinky "Blues to Steve Lacy," the darkly catchy "Painter's Way" and fiery "Elk's Club."

Taylor Eigsti: Lucky to Be Me (Concord)
With or without the "halo effect," Eigsti proves himself to be a mature, top-flight pianist from the opening track, a fresh trio rendition of "Giant Steps" beginning with a poetic rubato intro. Young guitarist Julian Lage joins Eigsti for several tunes, one of the strongest being the Grammy-nominated original "Argument" with its infectious harmony and momentum. Eigsti's fifth album as a leader (his Concord debut) also draws deserved attention to his powerful songwriting, which pulls our ears between worlds of shade and light. He's in good company, too, with James Genus, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and Billy Kilson among others.

Jeff Gauthier: One and the Same (Cryptogramophone)
L.A.-based violinist and label-owner Jeff Gauthier does it again with his Goatette. Guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist David Witham lend their best whether playing lyrically, freely or simply sound-painting. Drummer Alex Cline and bassist Joel Hamilton are supportive but can also surprise. The quintet revels in the eerie soundscapes of Bennie Maupin's "Water Torture." "Solflicka" is an infectious and complex tune penned by the late bassist/composer/bandmate Eric von Essen. The moody "Heart Wisdom - For Thelma" is a perfect showcase for violin, co-written by Gauthier and Witham. Gauthier contributes much to the creative jazz scene as a producer and label-owner, but it's great to hear his own musical voice as well. (The links above are for HTML pages, but do check out Crypto's beautiful Flash site.)

Stefon Harris: African Tarantella: Dances with Duke (Blue Note)
Harris's newest album pays tribute to Ellington and Strayhorn, showing that their compositional signatures are still clear even in bold new contexts. The vibist is especially strong on The New Orleans Suite with a lush reeds-and-strings arrangements of "Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies" and the vampy "Portrait of Wellman Braud." The original title track is also a standout. And the project wouldn't be the same without regulars like Steve Turre, Anne Drummond and Terreon Gully.

Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau: Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch)
It was only a matter of time before these two talents met on record. Metheny's bright guitar stylings and Mehldau's darker piano voicings are perfect complements, and their kinship is clear when they both take flight. "Ahmid-6" is a great display of their unique melodic and harmonic gifts. Mehldau's current triomates bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard join them for two cuts -- the driving, rock-inspired "Ring of Life" (Metheny brings out the guitar synth) and the uplifting "Say the Brother's Name."

Madeleine Peyroux: Half the Perfect World (Rounder)
Peyroux's fragile voice and languid phrasing are as charming as ever on her third album. She captures the heartbreak of "The Summer Wind" with a gorgeous alto solo from Gary Foster. "I'm All Right" is a catchy and almost whimsical number, and "Everybody's Talkin'" is at its breezy best. She shows her songwriter influences with some poetic Leonard Cohen tunes, "Blue Alert" and the album's title track. Peyroux comes into her own on this well-produced effort with some bittersweet balladry and great walking-tempo grooves, greatly enhanced by Sam Yahel's tasteful keyboard work.

Chris Potter: Underground (Sunnyside)
Potter's new quartet includes keyboardist Craig Taborn on Rhodes, guitarist Wayne Krantz and drummer (and Dave Holland Big Bandmate) Nate Smith, each of whom have plenty of pull on the direction of Underground (Adam Rogers makes a cameo here and is the current axeman in Potter's touring band). No bass here, but with so much rhythmic and harmonic information, you don't really have a chance to miss it. With heavy funk and rock leanings, the foursome pulls out the stops for tunes like "Next Best Western" and "Nudnik," but Potter's sensitivity is center stage for the beautiful "Celestial Nomad." There's an incredibly haunting cover of Radiohead's "Morning Bell," too.

Eric Reed: Here (Maxjazz)
Reed's latest effort with bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Willie Jones III highlights the best qualities of its players: Jones's agile textures; Whitaker's solid lines and meaty sound; Reed's plush but firm piano voicings and rapturous lines. The pianist's strong lyricism and compositional style are a potent combination, but the trio's democratic presentation and the recording's warmth make it a must-have.

Trio Beyond: Saudades (ECM)
This live date in London showcases the most no-holds-barred sides of Jack DeJohnette, Larry Goldings and John Scofield. The band started out as a tribute to Tony Williams's Lifetime band but became much looser conceptually as the trio evolved. While all three voices have equal weight, DeJohnette is truly the driving force of the group and has never sounded better to me. Sco rocks out plenty and Goldings is remarkably venturesome, not afraid to pour on the dense textures. Their repertoire for this album includes tunes from Williams's whole career as well as some originals. "If" and "Seven Steps to Heaven" are especially powerful.

Christian Scott: Rewind That (Concord)
Scott's Concord debut centers its sound on the seductive, youthful sounds of neo-soul, R&B and hip-hop with plenty of jazz. His uncle Donald Harrison has long drawn from the same influences, but trumpeter Scott has plenty of his own things to say. Drenched in Rhodes, guitar and crisply popping drums, this album focuses more on vibe than virtuosity. But while the emphasis is on sonics, groove and melody, there are also some notable solos here from the young trumpeter, Harrison and tenorist Walter Smith III. My faves here are the brooding "Paradise Found," "Rejection" and the funky "Lay in Vein."


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