As 2006 draws to a close, here are ten jazz recordings that I've enjoyed this year, as well as a half-dozen non-jazz albums that spent a good deal of time playing on my iPod ...
1) JOHN ELLIS - By A Thread (Hyena)
While I enjoyed his previous two records immensely, saxophonist John Ellis has crafted a masterpiece (at least to my ears) with By A Thread. The band--guitarist Mike Moreno, pianist Aaron Goldberg, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Terreon Gully--interprets nine original compositions that span a variety of styles. The playing on the record is superb, but I believe what really hooked me was Ellis' clever writing. The saxophonist includes enough hooks to leave melodies lingering in your memory with plenty of room for soloists to stretch out.
2) BOB REYNOLDS - Can't Wait For Perfect (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Saxophonist Bob Reynolds augmented pianist Aaron Goldberg's working trio (featuring bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland) with Mike Moreno's guitar and his own tenor for a program of listener-friendly, original compositions with enough rhythmic and harmonic sophistication to keep things interesting. The addition of David Soler's pedal steel guitar on a pair of tracks gives the music a unique flavor reminiscent of Brian Blade's Fellowship records.
3) DAVE HOLLAND QUINTET - Critical Mass (Dare2)
There's something to be said about hearing an entire album's worth of new material being road tested just before it gets recorded. About a year ago Dave Holland brought his quintet to Schenectady and provided those of us in attendance with such an opportunity. Not that they needed the public rehearsal mind you - the band absolutely killed the material on stage - and did so once again a few days later in the studio. Critical Mass is easily my favorite Dave Holland Quintet record yet. Is it the mix of clever compositions from all the band members? The top notch soloing from everyone involved? The dynamic interplay between the rhythm section and the soloists? It's probably all of this plus the eight months of waiting to hear these songs once again and recapture the magic of that night last December ...
4) E.S.T. - Tuesday Wonderland (ACT)
The Esbjorn Svensson Trio continues its streak of highly crafted individualistic albums with a collection of songs said to be based on J.S. Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier." I don't believe this one has been released stateside just yet but the title track alone, with it's shifting odd-meter grooves and memorable melodies, makes this record worth seeking out overseas.
5) CHRIS POTTER - Underground (Sunnyside)
I had been blown away by a bootleg video of this group that I acquired about a year before this record came out. I waited anxiously to hear the 'official' documentation of Potter's fusion quartet to see how it would measure up to that live performance I had listened to so many times. I'm happy to report that the studio record was just as good as the live performance. The quartet - comprised of tenor sax, guitar, fender rhodes & drums - stretches out on Potter's original material as well as tunes by Radiohead, The Beatles and Billy Strayhorn.
6) NIK BARTSCH'S RONIN - Stoa (ECM)
I have never heard music that sounds quite like what pianist Nik Bartsh's group produces. Sure, the influences are apparent - classical minimalism, M-base, funk, electronica - but the way these five musicians combine these sounds in a live setting is unique and inspiring to my ears. To some it might be considered a stretch to put this music in a list of "jazz" recordings but there is certainly enough improvisation and group interaction to qualify.
7) FRANK LOCRASTO - When You're There (Maxjazz)
This is an incredible debut album for pianist Frank Locrasto. He's assembled an amazing band - including saxophonist Chris Cheek, guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Ben Street & drummer Tommy Crane - to interpret nine of his original compositions. The core quintet is augmented with strings and woodwinds on several pieces adding a welcome layer of depth to the music. The writing is exquisite and the playing inspired.
8) JOE LOCKE/GEOFFERY KEEZER GROUP - Live In Seattle (Origin)
Yet another example of hearing the music live before the recording ... I caught Joe Locke's band (minus Keezer) at the Kingston International Jazz Festival this summer where they played many of the selections on this recording. Drummer Terreon Gully and acoustic & electric bassist Mike Pope round out the quartet on this live recording with flawless execution and unbridled creativity.
9) BEN ALLISON - Cowboy Justice (Palmetto)
I've been a long time fan of bassist Ben Allison and his various ensembles. When I read that he was releasing his first record without a saxophonist I was initially a little disappointed (what can I say?) but I had faith that he would once again produce something out of the ordinary. When I actually heard the music I was blown away by the writing and the quartet he had assembled. Trumpeter Ron Horton, guitarist Steve Cardenas and drummer Jeff Ballard help Allison bring his songs of political dissidence to life while producing one of the fullest sounds I've heard from a piano-(and sax)-less quartet in some time.
10) MARCUS STRICKLAND - Twi-Life (disc 2) (Strick Music)
I first became acquainted with saxophonist Marcus Strickland through his work with bassist Lonnie Plaxico's group. Since then I've enjoyed his contributions to records by Dave Douglas, Roy Haynes, Jeff "Tain" Watts and others as well as his own recordings for the Fresh Sound New Talent label. To call Strickland's debut release on his own "Strick Music" label ambitious would be a vast understatement. It's difficult enough to release a recording on a brand new, independent label. Add to that the fact that it's a double album of (nearly) all original compositions performed by two bands and you're really challenging yourself as an artist. Strickland succeeds in presenting his vision with both an acoustic "Quartet" - featuring pianist Robert Glasper, acoustic bassist Vincente Archer and brother/drummer E.J. Strickland - and his electric "Twi-Life Quartet" - featuring guitarist Lage Lund, electric bassist Brad Jones and E.J. once again. While I enjoy both groups, the electric quartet gets my nod for the stellar guitar work by Lund.
KAMIKAZE HEARTS - Oneida Road (Collar Citty Records)
THE RACONTEURS - Broken Boy Soldiers (V2)
ZERO 7 - The Garden (Warner)
JOHN MAYER - Continuum (Columbia)
MUSE - Black Hole And Revolutions (A&E)
THE LAST KISS - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Lakeshore)