The 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2009

It can be frustrating to be a jazz lover. Even in New York, you run into culturally sophisticated people who

It can be frustrating to be a jazz lover. Even in New York, you run into culturally sophisticated people who would be embarrassed to admit their unfamiliarity with the latest Brooklyn indie rock band (as of this moment, that would be the Dirty Projectors, of course), but are perfectly comfortable confessing their ignorance about an unsung jazz great in their midst like alto saxophonist David Binney.

Mr. Binney is typical of his generation of luminaries. He is ignored by graying critics who wring their hands about the art form’s pending death. And yet when he played the Rubin Museum Art in September, he packed it with fans hungry for his updated acoustic melding of several strains of music from the seventies—pop, jazz-rock fusion and the decade’s turbulent avant-garde. 

It was almost as if Mr. Binney were conjuring up the kind of jazz that would have flowered from that decade onward if record labels hadn’t chosen to champion smooth jazz and young lions instead. These days, the music industry no longer dictates what is or isn’t jazz. That means paltry record sales perhaps. But on nights like this, it’s clear that jazz is in a better place aesthetically than is has been in decades. Listen for yourself. Here are the ten best jazz albums of 2009.

David Binney, Third Occasion (Mythology Records)

Perhaps better than anybody else right now, Mr. Binney balances the adventurous elements of modern jazz with the lyricism of sophisticated pop. You can easily imagine Joni Mitchell singing the tunes on Third Occasion. The saxophonist often plays solos with screeching climaxes. But interestingly enough, he often reaches them when his band members—the pianist Craig Taborn, the bassist Scott Colley and the drummer Brian Blade–are playing the kind of hooks that Walter Becker and Donald Fagan would probably gush about.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam Records)

As the name of his nu big band suggests, the composer-bandleader-blogger Darcy James Argue sees himself as an artistic insurgent. He is a former student of trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, celebrated for his work as an arranger who broke new ground as an arranger for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in the sixties and seventies. But Infernal Machines also draws on the minimalism of Steve Reich and the apocalyptic rock and roll of Radiohead. This is also music with a message, a decidedly leftist one. What else would you expect from a Canadian jazz man resettled in Carroll Gardens?

The Linda Oh Trio, Entry (self-released)

Ms. Oh, a youthful Chinese-Malaysian bassist who grew up in Australia, played her first gig as a leader in July at (Le) Poisson Rouge and released Entry, her first album, a few weeks later. The critics swooned, and no wonder. The interplay between Ms. Oh and her trio mates—the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Obed Calvaire—is surprisingly forceful. Imagine the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a day when Anthony Kedis is on holiday. Ms. Oh’s trio even covers “Soul to Squeeze,” an RHCP b-side.

Joe Martin, Not By Chance (Anzic Records)

The bassist Joe Martin, an unassuming Iowan, has long been one of New York’s busiest sidemen. One his second album as a leader, he has called in two of his occasional employers: the pianist Brad Mehldau and the saxophonist Chris Potter, both of whom are stars in the jazz world, and the talented young drummer Marcus Gilmore. The result is a blowing session by jazz musicians who have rid their playing of any hackneyed jazz-isms. Its profundity lies not so much for its ambition, but for its deep grooves and joyful playing. Mr. Martin also reminds us that he is a gifted composer.

Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio, Reflections (Word of Mouth Music)

On his most recent visit to New York, the guitarist Mr. Rosenwinkel, a Philadelphian who now resides in Germany, performed standards at the Village Vanguard and snuck in an appearance with The Roots on the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon Show. For the latter, search YouTube. For the former, we have Reflections, a ballad album made up of familiar tunes by Thelonius Monk and Wayne Shorter and one of the leader’s beguiling originals, “East Coast Love Affair.” It’s a tad reserved. But nobody makes the electric guitar sings like Mr. Rosenwinkel.

Keith Jarrett, Testament London/Paris (ECM)

The pianist Keith Jarrett, now 64 years old, is playing totally improvised solo concerts again. For that, we should all be thankful. This is Mr. Jarrett’s third live solo recording in four years, and it is another gem. If his early solo excursions like the classic 1975 Koln Concert were distinguished for their youthful ambition and their lyricism, Testament remarkable for its breadth and its darkness. In the London show, Mr. Jarrett serves up Schoenbergian atonality, Mehldau-ian jazz pop and a spontaneous ballad that Leonard Bernstein could have penned for an alternative version of West Side Story.

Ravi Coltrane, Blending Times (Savoy Jazz)

The legendary John Coltrane’s late period work with his wife pianist-harpist Alice Coltrane alternated between the serene and the purposely chaotic. Their son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, takes these two seemingly disparate elements and weaves them so tightly together that they become indistinguishable on his latest album. The result is jazz that is free and yet at the same time pastoral. It succeeds not only because Mr. Coltrane is fine saxophonist, but because his quartet, featuring pianist Luis Perdomo, the bassist Drew Gress and the drummer E.J. Strickland, is one of best ensembles in jazz.

Rob Garcia 4, Perennial (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records)

On some nights, the drummer Rob Garcia plays traditional jazz with filmmaker-clarinetist Woody Allen at the Café Caryle. On others, you can find playing him playing the more gnarly contemporary variety that would make the crowd at the Upper East Side waterhole run for the exits. On Perennial, Mr. Garcia splits this difference between these two extremes. The album sounds a bit like a thoroughly modern version of a Lennie Tristano session from the early fifties. In other words, Mr. Garcia is a thinker. But his music is warm and unpretentious. Perhaps most delightfully, he writes melodies you find yourself humming long after Perennial is over.

John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Eternal Interlude (Sunnyside Records)

Calling the drummer-composer John Hollenbeck a jazz musician is like referring to Thom Yorke as a mere rock and roll crooner. It seems a rather narrow description for someone with such prodigious talents and ambitions. Mr. Hollenbeck writes pieces for his large ensemble that are almost symphonic. They share a lot with the more ecstatic strains of contemporary classic music, the kind practiced by John Adams and the drummer’s longtime employer, Meredith Monk. And yet if David Binney is a jazz musician then so is Mr. Hollenbeck. They are both reinvigorating the art form with influences from the broader culture. Jazz needs more of this.

Chris  Potter Underground, Ultrahang (ArtistShare)

The saxophonist Chris Potter continues his examination of James Brown and Miles Davis’ electric period on the third album by his modern day fusion quartet. It’s a worthy project. At times, Ultrahang sounds a bit chilly and self-congratulatory, a typical problem with jazz-rock. But songs like “Interstellar Signals” are transcendent. And Mr. Potter’s playing is never less than excellent. No tenor saxophonist has done more better work in the recording studio this year.


The 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2009