Redwood Jazz Alliance

Top Picks for 2009

With each passing year this seems like an ever more impossible—futile? irrelevant?—task.  For one thing, even though jazz fans are supposedly still loyal, compared with other music buyers, to the relatively higher fidelity of the CD (we skew older, which evidently makes us more nostalgic, more fetishistic, and/or more set in our ways), there’s no getting around the fact that the compact disc is SO twentieth-century.  Top 10 CDs?  Brother, please…

And then there’s the fact that with the ongoing demise of record companies and the accompanying shift in the means of production and distribution, more and more people—including more and more artists—are occupying the space where the record companies used to be.  Occupying?  Inflating.  Exploding.  It seems like there’s a ton more music being released each year, and at least a half-ton of it is really good.  (Which means that hearing everything that’s out there—heck, even hearing about everything that’s out there—never mind winnowing that pile down to 10 favorite releases, is just that much more difficult.)  

Still, towards the end of the year a person feels compelled to look back and take stock of what one has managed to listen to.  So what follows is the product of our collective stock-taking.  There are seven of us on the RJA board, and we’re all people of eclectic, though not identical, tastes.  This year, our historically arcane process had more scientific rigor than we’d previously thought ourselves capable of:  after wrestling all of our contenders into a spreadsheet, each of us rated as many of the discs as we’d listened to on a five-point scale.  Then we took each disc’s average rating and weighted it for total number of votes (i.e., the score for a disc with a greater number of ratings was weighted more heavily than one with a lesser number).  And that gave us our rankings.  We think all ten are equally worthy of repeated listening.  And the other fifty or so that didn’t make the final cut, as well.  Oh, and the dozens of great discs that none of us managed to get to (or all of us somehow forgot about—John Zorn’s Masada Quintet with Joe Lovano, Stolas: The Book of Angels, Vol. 12, anyone? J.D. Allen Trio, Shine? Keith Jarrett, Testament? Henry Threadgill and Zooid, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1?).  Anyway, here’s how it all shook out.

  1. Dave Douglas, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf Music).  A sublime homage to the all-embracing, pop-inspired spirit of Lester Bowie.  This is brass band jazz that inherits and ennobles several different traditions at once. 
  2. Darcy James Argue, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam).  With his “steampunk” big band Secret Society, Darcy James Argue seamlessly blends post-rock guitar, electronica-inspired textures and post-minimalist rhythms with the modern big band tradition that stretches from Thad Jones to Maria Schneider. He has a great blog, too.
  3. Vijay Iyer, Historicity (ACT).  Pianist Iyer is the man of the moment in the jazz blogosphere.  He’s at the top of his game as a player, composer, and arranger (and explicator of his own work), and though he's been turning out fantastic stuff for over a decade, this trio record is his breakout disc.  One of many high points:  a totally rocking cover of M.I.A.’s “Galang.”  That’s all the reason you need to check it out.
  4. Ben Allison, Think Free (Palmetto).  Allison continues his experiments with a sound that incorporates the rock, pop, and film music of his formative years--but with a new band, featuring holdover Steve Cardenas on guitar, trumpeter Shane Endsley replacing Ron Horton, Rudy Royston in the drummer's chair, and Humboldt homegirl Jenny Scheinman on violin.
  5. Ron Horton, It's a Gadget World (ABeat).  Horton is the most lyrical of the newer New York trumpeters. Even with an enormous, dark tone he creates finely shaped figures which contrast nicely against the complex rhythmic backgrounds provided by Antonio Zambrini’s elegant piano, Ben Allison’s fun-loving bass and Tony Moreno’s busy drumming. 
  6. John Hollenbeck, Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside).  For his Large Ensemble, Hollenbeck writes lengthy, well-thought-out, richly detailed compositions with such a large palette of colors, rhythms and textures that the label "jazz" is no more adequate a description of it than any other that's yet been created. 
  7. Dafnis Prieto, Si ó Si Quartet Live at the Jazz Standard (Dafnison Music).  Today’s most innovative young drummer polishes some compositional gems that he unwrapped in Arcata last spring.  Nobody else makes polyrhythms sound so easy.
  8. Joe Martin, Not By Chance (Anzic).  There were a few higher-profile jazz “supergroup” albums this year, but this sleeper gets our vote for Most Noteworthy.  Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Brad Mehldau, and first-call drummer Marcus Gilmore (see Vijay Iyer Trio, above) put their oversized talents to work in the service of nine beautiful, swinging tunes by in-demand bassist Martin, who steps out of his usual sideman role to lead the session.
  9. Miguel Zenón, Esta Plena (Marsalis Music).  The intense young altoist returns with his freshest exploration yet of the crossroads of jazz and the folk traditions of his native Puerto Rico.  They don't give MacArthur "genius" grants to just anybody.
  10. Tom Harrell, Prana Dance (Half Note).  The veteran trumpeter/flugelhornist’s second album with a quintet of energetic young apprentices (Danny Grissett, Wayne Escoffery, Ugonna Okegwo, Johnathan Blake) serves up catchy but complex compositions and water-tight playing.

And here's the complete list of notable releases:

Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall


Alex Cline


Allen Toussaint

The Bright Mississippi

Andy Milne & Benoit Delbecque

Where is Pannonica?

Ben Allison

Think Free

Ben Goldberg & Go Home

Go Home

Ben Sidran

Dylan Different

Bill Frisell


Brad Shepik

Human Activity Suite

Branford Marsalis


Chris Potter


Courtney Pine

Transition in Tradition

Dafnis Prieto

Si o Si Quartet Live at the Jazz Standard

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Infernal Machines

Dave Douglas

A Single Sky

Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy

Spirit Moves

David Binney

Third Occasion

Dee Alexander

Wild Is the Wind

Denny Zeitlin Trio

In Concert Featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson

Donny McCaslin


Enrico Pieranunzi


Enrico Rava

New York Days

Fareed Haque

Flat Planet

Fay Victor

The Free Song Suite


Sky and Country

Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra

Live at the Jazz Standard

Graham Collier

directing 14 jackson pollocks

Gretchen Parlato

In a Dream

Hans Ulrik

Slow Procession

Harris Eisenstadt

Canada Day

Henry Threadgill and Zooid

This Brings Us To, Vol. 1

J.D. Allen Trio


James Carney

Ways and Means

Jason Lindner

Now vs. Now

Jeff Tain Watts


Joe Lovano & Us Five

Folk Art

Joe Martin

Not By Chance

Joel Harrison

Urban Myths

John Hollenbeck

Eternal Interlude

John Surman

Brewster’s Rooster

John Zorn’s Masada Quintet

Stolas: The Book of Angels, Vol. 12

Joshua Redman


Linda Oh


Luis Bonilla

I Talking Now!

Lynne Arriale


Marc Copland

Night Whispers

Marcus Strickland


Marty Ehrlich

Things Have Got to Change

Matt Wilson Quartet

That's Gonna Leave a Mark

Miguel Zenon

Esta Plena

Miles Okazaki


Nicole Mitchell and Black Earth Strings


Ralph Alessi

Open Season

Rez Abazzi

Things to Come

Robert Glasper

Double Booked

Ron Horton

It's a Gadget World

Sam Yahel


SFJazz Collective

Live 2009: 6th Annual Concert Tour

Steve Lehman Octet

Travail, Transformation & Flow

The Monterey Quartet

The Monterey Quartet

Theo Bleckman & Kneebody

12 Songs by Charles Ives

Tom Harrell

Prana Dance

Tomasz Stanko

Dark Eyes

Vijay Iyer


Wadada Leo Smith

Spiritual Dimensions

Yaron Herman


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