I’m staying out of the “Best albums of the year” conversation that happens around this time each year, but allow me to indulge with my favorites of 2009.
I’m staying out of the “Best albums of the year” conversation that happens around this time each year; I haven’t even come close to listening to every record that was released in 2009, so how could I be an authority on what was the “best”? And what does being on a list like that even mean for an album?
It could mean that it was a game changer, for one thing. If an artist really took creative risks and pulled them off successfully, it probably caused quite a stir in the music community and beyond. And if its influence on musicians and the community is immediately realizable, I’d say that makes for a pretty successful album. Also, consider an album released in January that people are still talking about in December; to rise above the massive ocean of new releases in quality and memorability for months at a time is a remarkable feat, one that surely will put an album in contention for “best of the year.”
Critics are putting out their lists left and right, like NPR Take Five’s Top 10 Jazz Records Of 2009 and Howard Mandel’s Best beyond “jazz” CDs of 2009 (Howard notes that he reviewed over 1000 albums this year; I’d say he’s qualified to make his picks for the “best”). I don’t want this to become a list of lists, but check out some of the others by Jazz Journalist Association writers. Like Howard, I’ve heard a lot of music this year, many by listening to submissions for airplay on WRIR jazz programming. Unlike Howard, I posit that the number of albums I’ve heard falls short of 1000.
My list of “favorites of 2009” contains a mix of albums: some that were talked about as soon as they were released as being possible best of the year albums and some that simply struck my fancy this year. Let’s talk about that first one. Artists who are doing great things draw the attention of the jazz community (see Iyer, Zenón), and when they release an album that takes their artistic direction to a new level, it is almost immediately branded as a potential best album of the year (see Iyer, Zenón). That’s not to say their albums make any lists by default; those musicians on top of the world right now just as easily could have made mediocre albums, or taken their ideas so far out that — even if it was brilliant in some way — few could grasp it.
But, quite simply, they didn’t.
Vijay Iyer Trio’s Historicity took an interesting approach to the jazz standard of reproducing the American Song Book or contemporary pop songs. “Each cover,” Iyer writes in the CD’s liner notes, “becomes a conversation between the original work and something else entirely; the best word for it is ‘versioning.'” The trio’s versions of pieces by M.I.A., Stevie Wonder, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, Julius Hemphill, and others, do just that; the three aren’t bogged down and seem to float over the ideas of the originals. You won’t be sorry if you pay 99 cents right now for their performance of West Side Story’s “Somewhere,” and “Galang [Trio Riot Version]” would get any club rowdy.
Like Iyer, MacArthur Genius Miguel Zenón’s visibility on the scene certainly helps his cause, but so does his virtuosic playing and unique vision. NPR had an exclusive first listen of the album before its release (Hype before an album’s release is a good omen for an album’s success). With Esta Plena, Miguel Zenón combined influences of his native Puerto Rico’s plena music and the improvisational spirit of jazz. The syncopations of the folk music are throughout these tunes that are mainly in common time. The juxtaposition of traditional vocals and modern chords and rhythm is slick, with Zenón playing the common thread.
Other not-so-expected albums were some favorites of mine this year as well. If I’ve mentioned them in the past, the link will take you to that. So, without further ado, my favorite jazz albums of 2009:
Tigran Hamasyan – Red Hail (Plus Loin) —RVAJazz, NPR Jazz Now
Vijay Iyer Trio – Historicity (ACT Music)
Tyshawn Sorey – Koan (482 Music)
Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls – Seize The Time (Naim)
Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation, And Flow (Pi)
Miguel Zenón – Esta Plena (Marsalis Music)
Matt Wilson Quartet – That’s Gonna Leave A Mark (Palmetto)
Chris Morrissey Quartet – The Morning World (Sunnyside) — NPR Jazz Now
Darius Jones – Man’ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) (AUM Fidelity) — RVAJazz
Brian Jones (Guitar) Quartet – Wool (Slang Sanctuary) — RVAJazz
Fred Hersch Pocket Orchestra – Live at Jazz Standard (Sunnyside)
Led Bib – Sensible Shoes (Cuneiform)
J.D. Allen Trio – Shine! (Sunnyside)
Amanda Tosoff – Wait and See (Cellar Live)
What are yours?
photo by indi.ca