A Jazz Odds ‘n’ Sods

When my grandmother, a Southerner inordinately fond of family stories about the gracious old plantation days, confessed a grudging admiration for the first few episodes of the PBS Jazz series, I knew that Ken Burns had done something seriously right. Within the world of the jazz cognoscenti, the idea that black Americans were largely responsible for the nation’s most esteemed and original music was so self-evident as to border on the banal. Not so, I suspect, for much of middle-class white America, which was willing to accept the news only because PBS and Mr. Burns had delivered it.

Of course, as almost every jazz critic has pointed out, Mr. Burns did a miserable job of representing jazz after 1960, giving viewers precious few reasons to care about anyone who survived Armstrong or Ellington. Sales of new jazz CD’s, formerly in decline, now seem to have ceased altogether, at least until the tourists finish picking through the corporate reissue bin. But as the faun of New Hampshire likes to say, that’s not his problem; he’s a historian.

For those of us condemned to live in the unreconstructed present, what does our recent past–last year’s jazz releases–say about the state of the art? Whereas Mr. Burns offered my grandmother a stirring, if at times gassy, tale of Great Men doing Great Things, I’ve got–to use the lingo of the Manhattan Music column–Odds ‘n’ Sods.

An album that earns Odds ‘n’ Sods status is a good one, certainly–but more than that, it’s a maverick, or an orphan, or a curio, or a one-off. Absent any ruling narrative or overarching theme of the sort that Mr. Burns favors, jazz in 2000 was basically a huge assortment of Odds ‘n’ Sods. So, in no special order, here are a few choice ones.

Who knows? Maybe if they’re examined closely, they’ll arrange themselves like tea leaves or pigeon entrails and point us toward what–40 years ago, in a more confident age–saxophonist Ornette Coleman called “The Shape of Jazz to Come.”

1) Tony Malaby : Sabino (Arabesque)

It’s not like Ken Burns is the only guy hung up on a great-man theory of jazz. Melody and compositional structure tend to take a back seat whenever there’s a genius Promethean axman on hand to wrestle with the gods and every chord change imaginable. It’s a bad habit, but after Coltrane, Rollins, Getz, Shorter and Henderson, who can blame us for wondering if there’s another tenor titan working his way through the ranks? At this moment, Tony Malaby, a 36-year-old Mexican-American saxophonist from Tucson, seems a hopeful bet. There were more accomplished albums from tenorists last year, namely Joe Lovano’s 52nd Street Themes and Branford Marsalis’ Contemporary Jazz –but Mr. Lovano was looking back, masterfully, to Todd Dameron’s composerly brand of bebop, while Mr. Marsalis was fleshing out the post-bop present. It was Mr. Malaby’s driven, drizzly-sounding tenor, pushed hard in the upper registers so that it sounded like a soprano, that offered the most salutary kick in the head.

On the best tracks of his debut album, Mr. Malaby pits himself against the French electric guitarist Marc Ducret. Where Mr. Malaby wants to mesmerize us with those endless mysterioso sax lines, Mr. Ducret sounds like an emissary from a chillier world, fracturing the sound into metallic splinters. Listeners who prefer more considered musical settings are directed to Malinke’s Dance , on the fine new jazz label OmniTone, where sideman Malaby joins his mentor Marty Ehrlich’s group, Traveler’s Tales.

2) Charms of the Night Sky : A Thousand Evenings (RCA Victor); Guy Klucevsek and Alan Bern : Accordance (Winter & Winter)

According to the action-reaction dictum of Newtonian physics, the hot-blowing hard-boppers of the late 50’s were balanced by the crisper, more contrapuntal sounds emanating from the Modern Jazz Quartet and West Coast cool jazz. Today, saxophonists like Tony Malaby and David Ware burn with the old intensity, but they are outnumbered by downtown groups that have settled into a classically inflected chamber-jazz sound. In terms of the downtowners, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Charms of the Night Sky ensemble is probably the most exquisite of a highly exquisite bunch, having completely forsaken the sprightly sound of the 50’s cool crowd for something more minorish, tinged with Balkan melodies and Old World ennui. While this music might not have the energy to drive jazz into a gleaming new century, it certainly suits Mr. Douglas. His trumpet work sounds distinctively hollow, haunted even–unlike some of his peers who play this sort of material as if they’re recycling attitudes from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain .

Still, the most attention-getting instrument in Charms of the Night Sky is the accordion, that most conspicuously un-macho of axes, usually associated with wheezing old men working Midwest wedding receptions. On the group’s most recent album, A Thousand Evenings , Guy Klucevsek’s accordion joins gentle forces with the leader’s trumpet, Mark Feldman’s violin and Greg Cohen’s bass on a series of compositions that exert a melancholic suasion.

In much the same hip-to-be-square way that the clarinet acquired new cachet in the klezmer-jazz boom of the 90’s, Mr. Klucevsek, a downtown mainstay, has effected an accordion make-over, abetted by the growing appetite for Balkan music and tango. I had envisioned Mr. Klucevsek as something of a one-man accordion band, but the recent Winter & Winter release Accordance , which pairs him with fellow virtuoso Alan Bern, proves otherwise. The album is more varied in mood than A Thousand Evenings ; indeed, the lively interplay between Messrs. Bern and Klucevsek falls into that hallowed jazz tradition of improvised call-and-response, even if you won’t ever hear Mr. Burns list accordion duets along with baseball and the Constitution as one of the three great achievements of American civilization.

3) Uri Caine Ensemble : The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter)

One way for jazz musicians to deal with the classical tradition is to throw out the jazz. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, a veteran of a particularly cerebral school of 50’s cool, recorded a lovely album last year, Lee Konitz & the Axis String Quartet Play French Impressionist Music from the 20th Century (Palmetto Records). The title pretty much tells you what you need to know, except that Mr. Konitz was so imbued with the spirit of the project that his improvisations sounded like they were composed by Ravel. Next month, Branford Marsalis and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra gracefully wade into the same crowd of Frenchmen–Satie, Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud–in Creation , on Sony Classical.

Though the Konitz and Marsalis albums are much superior to mirror efforts in the classical world (my grandmother will enjoy the unswinging and unthreatening Sir Simon Rattle’s Classic Ellington ), they do lack a recognizable jazz brazenness. For that, we turn to the pianist Uri Caine, who in 1997 was lifted from the ranks of talented, scuffling New York sidemen by the critical success of his exploration of Gustav Mahler’s work, Mahler/Caine: Primal Light (Winter & Winter). Mr. Caine blew up the Jewish folk element in Mahler, an expedient convert to Christianity, into full-bore klezmer and cantorial schmerz .

His Bach project was a tougher nut to crack–no sexy back story, just the fugues and canons that are the backbone of Western classical music. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a sort of Baroque anticipation of postmodernism, a set of 30 harmonically identical harpsichord variations that hold our interest with their radical shifts of style: a fugue here, a Sicilian dance there. So Mr. Caine, bilingual in classical and jazz, wrote and performed 70 of his own variations more or less according to the Master’s plan, slipping into modern idioms–from gospel to drum-and-bass–whenever he felt the urge.

The result is not as organically satisfying as the Mahler album. Philadelphia gospel diva Barbara Walker belting out “The Nobody Knows Variation,” or the Brazilian singer Vinicius Cantuaria bossa-nova-ing on “Variation for Vinicius,” don’t really illuminate Bach all that much–not even virtual Bachs inhabiting parallel universes. But in this Odds ‘n’ Sods jazz universe, you take your tours de force where you can find them.

Oddest of all, perhaps, I like Mr. Caine’s knotty hard-bop jazz variations the best–which makes me wonder whether he’s the postmodernist Wizard of Oz, dazzling us with his reconceptualizations so that we can appreciate jazz Kansas all over again.

4) Andrew Hill : Dusk (Palmetto Records)

Dusk , by pianist Andrew Hill’s sextet, is one of the finest albums of 2000 that I somehow didn’t listen to until 2001. Mr. Hill’s unusual intervals, his feeling for space and silence, were legendary in jazz circles, thanks to a handful of Blue Note recordings in the 60’s. But the few times I had seen him in small combos in recent years, his piano minimalism had struck me as more like indifference, so I wasn’t prepared for this rhythmically catchy, tuneful and elegant album.

The six musicians are deployed in almost every permutation; the ensemble conveys at times the density of orchestral jazz, at times the intimacy of chamber jazz, and always the palpable horror of cliché. The saxophones–Greg Tardy on tenor sax and Marty Ehrlich (who often seemed to be around when good things were happening last year) on alto–are especially strong conversational partners for Mr. Hill’s piano.

5) Roy Nathanson : Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill (Six Degrees Records)

Now that the embers of major-label jazz are being kept alive by singers, a few smart jazz musicians are trying to tap the emotional force and dramatic concision of the sung song. Let’s face the music: Without an arresting sound or conception, jazz improvisation often comes across as long-winded and over-familiar. These are not the adjectives you would affix to Roy Nathanson’s Fire at Keaton’s Bar & Grill , not when Elvis Costello launches into a beery elegy for his old haunt on the very first track: “I was pissed as a fart … We was broken at heart.”

Mr. Nathanson, the saxophonist founder of the Jazz Passengers, has finally managed to sink his highly theatrical hooks into the jazz mainstream with this song cycle about a musically heterogeneous, semi-mythical dive bar. (Or perhaps I should say he would have, if anyone had bought the album.) In truth, I loved the ambition behind Keaton’s even more than the album itself. Mr. Costello is a strenuous crooner who, given enough microphone time, can get on my nerves. However, when Keaton’s was presented at St. Ann’s Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights this past summer, Mr. Costello found his rightful place in the mix, along with beefed-up instrumentals and Debbie Harry singing the part of “Cups” (“bartender to the masses, lover to the fortunate”), and I had what can only be described as a religious vision of Mr. Nathanson leading an army of aging, wised-up jazz and pop stars on to create their generation’s version of Tin Pan Alley–or Sondheim at least.

Given Mr. Nathanson’s importance in my jazz heaven, I figured he should have the last word about the Ken Burns series that had provoked my Odds ‘n’ Sods retrospective. The PBS series had its virtues, Mr. Nathanson allowed, except that “Ken Burns didn’t really acknowledge the insanity that produces jazz.”

I got his point. A few weeks ago, I’d gone to see the singer Abbey Lincoln at the Blue Note performing material from her raw, superb album Over the Years (Verve). It was the first set of the first night of the engagement, and Ms. Lincoln felt that her young band hadn’t yet fallen in sync rhythmically with her tricky, idiosyncratic phrasing. And she plainly told them so, such that the ensuing set was closer to musical psychodrama than commercial entertainment. For Ms. Lincoln, simply to get through the set as if nothing were wrong would have been the greater insult to the audience. That reckless, total absorption in the music is its own kind of insanity, and it usually attends the making of the most enduring jazz. Mr. Burns captures something of the feeling in his episode about the bebop years, which he had the presence of mind to entitle “Risk.” He got it right: No risk, no jazz.