Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Last Two New AccuJazz Channels of the Decade!

Just in time for Christmas, we have two new channels to finish up both our "Jazz Holiday" roll-out and the decade. First, we have a channel that looks back on everything that happened in jazz over the last decade.

The last decade was by all accounts a great one for jazz. I don't know exactly how history will judge the time period, but I wouldn't be surprised if the last ten years or so were regarded as a high-water mark for creativity in jazz. There are too many artists, albums, labels, and mini-movements to detail in any justice right now, but the good news is that AccuJazz has a new channel playing all sorts of great jazz from the last 10 years!

We're launching "Decade: 2000s," the last and final channel in the decades category (for a while, anyway). It's playing over 3,000 songs from artists as diverse as Ray Brown and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wynton Marsalis and Maria Schneider [pictured]. I really don't even know how to begin to express the breadth of the music involved, so, just listen and see what you think.

Also showing up just in time for the new decade is the latest addition to our composer channels, "Composers: Jobim," playing the timeless and gorgeous compositions of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Jobim was the compositional force behind the classic "Getz/Gilberto" album, which launched the international bossa nova craze. The gorgeous melodies and rich chords of tunes like "Desafinado" and "Corcovado" helped make him one of the most played composers in the history of jazz.

Our channel is playing over 200 versions of Jobim songs, including tribute albums by Frank Sinatra, Rosa Passos, Joe Henderson, and more. If you only know the hits, give the channel a listen and you'll no doubt fall in love with lesser-known tunes like "Zingaro" and "Inutil Paisagem."

Until next time, Happy Holidays and happy listening! Thanks so much for your support of AccuJazz!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Best of 2009, According to People Older and Smarter than I

I knew that I wanted to create a Best of 2009 channel this year, but I still haven't made a top-10 list of my own yet. So, instead of relying on my own opinion, I looked to a whole bunch of people who are smarter, more experienced and better-listened than I am to guide the channel's programming.

Critics and bloggers have been posting best-of lists on their own websites as well as on the Jazz Journalists Association site for well over a month now. JazzTimes also conducted a critics poll, tallying up everyone's votes and aggregating the results into a top-50. I expect the Village Voice to publish their critics poll soon.

For the last few weeks, I've been keeping my eyes peeled for year-end lists and compiling the results in a spreadsheet, awarding an album one "point" for every list on which it appeared, and half a "point" if it was granted an honorable mention. The objective was to have a document that showed which albums were deemed the best by the largest number of experts, so that I could create a channel that reflected their opinions.

Now, I know this is an inexact method: some people published a top-10, others had a top-25, and one guy even had a top-130(!). One critic's #11 would be actually be as good as another critic's honorable mention. Also, the JazzTimes poll included the opinions of 40 different critics -- should I have awarded points based on every single critic's individual list, or make up some other points system based on the final results? In the end, I just made up the rules as I went along, and ended up with a spreadsheet that I think fairly accurately reflects the "critical consensus."

You can check out a document showing all of the lists I referenced here. Below is the list of high scorers. With my simplistic point system, many albums received the same amount of points, so I've indicated the ties with letters placed after the numbers. Also, I've only included albums that we have in the AccuJazz collection, so you [regrettably] won't see Miguel Zenon or John Hollenbeck -- gotta get on that. Without further ado, the heavyweight champions of Jazz in 2009:

1) Vijay Iyer - Historicity
2a) Darcy James Argue's Secret Society - Infernal Machines
2b) Steve Lehman Octet - Travail, Transformation and Flow
3) Henry Threadgill Zooid - This Brings Us To, Vol. 1
4) Allen Toussaint - The Bright Mississippi
5a) Keith Jarrett - Paris/London: Testament
5b) Joe Lovano Us Five - Folk Art
6a) Fly - Sky & Country
6b) Darius Jones Trio - Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing)
6c) Gary Burton/Pat Metheny/Steve Swallow/Antonio Sanchez - Quartet Live
7a) Linda Oh - Entry
7b) Matt Wilson - That's Gonna Leave a Mark
7c) Jeff "Tain" Watts - Watts
7d) Monterey Quartet - Live at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival

Total, there are 242 different albums on my spreadsheet, the majority of which are not in the AccuJazz collection. There are dozens more albums that received less points but were still singled out by critics as being among the best. You will hear many of these on the channel, too, but with less frequency. Chances are you'll hear a Vijay Iyer track within your first 6 songs, but it may take a while before you hear something from Mike Reed's About Us, an album that only received a half a point but which I personally place among the best.

There were exactly 2 albums that made it on the JazzTimes poll and which are in my collection but I didn't deem deserving of a place on the channel. What albums are they? I'd rather not publicly ridicule anyone on the blog. If you really, really want to know, you can DM me on Twitter.

I really love listening to this channel, and I sincerely hope you do too. It's as good of evidence as any that the art of jazz is alive and well in 2009. An hour of music from this channel is as good a rebuttal as any to NYT columnist Glenn Branca's recent claim that "Jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art." From Henry Threadgill's brainy explorations of free improvisation to Darcy James Argue's fusion of big band tradition with modern rock sensibilities, jazz in 2009 was as varied and exhilarating as ever, perhaps moreso than ever.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Taking a Jazz Holiday

I know I used a Louis Armstrong photo at the top of my last post, but can you ever really see enough of that smile?

In case you didn't know, AccuRadio (AccuJazz's daddy) is well-known for its obscenely extensive Holiday music programming. In fact, said programming was even featured on Chicago Tonight, the nightly news program of Chicago's PBS affiliate, WTTW.

Being around so much Christmas radio cheer, I've naturally tried to think of ways to get AccuJazz in on the fun. Last year, I created an AccuJazz channel called "Swingin' Christmas." It was essentially AccuRadio's "Holiday Jazz" channel minus the smooth jazz, and it garnered lots of listeners. This year I thought I'd take the Holiday programming idea one step further and offer a whole lineup of new channels as a sort of gift basket to you, our faithful listeners. Thus, "Jazz Holiday" was born.

Before even creating any new channels, I took the time (and the company's credit card) to beef up our collection of Christmas jazz, hand-picking some choice tunes from the Amazon mp3 store and contacting record labels and artists who released Christmas albums this year. "Swingin' Christmas" is a much better listen this year than it was last year, with new CDs by Carla Bley, Hot Club of San Francisco, Typhanie Monique and more, as well as new-to-us CDs by Willie Pickens, Ramsey Lewis and Harry Allen among others.

For the first batch of new channels, I followed up on some listener suggestions I got through Twitter and Facebook and created three Swingin' Christmas subchannels: Christmas Vocals, Christmas Instrumentals, and New Christmas Jazz. Interestingly enough, there have been many points in the last week when I've noticed that the vocal and instrumental subchannels have each had more listeners than the main channel.

Now we're going to roll out some pretty awesome Non-Christmas channels, starting with one simply called "Best of 2009." This is not merely a compilation of my favorite music from 2009 (though I hope to create that channel in the coming weeks); the playlist is based on the results of over 20 critics' lists, including the JazzTimes critics poll. I compiled the results in a spreadsheet, awarding "points" based on how many lists selected an album and whether it was on the top or merely an honorable mention.

Vijay Iyer's Historicity was the top scorer, by far, with Steve Lehman and Darcy James Argue tied for second. Other high achievers include Joe Lovano, Henry Threadgill and Allen Toussaint. I programmed the channel based on the results, so it's very likely that you'll hear Vijay Iyer and a little less likely that you'll hear Bobby Broom, whose wonderful Monk tribute only appeared on a couple of lists. If you want to know what's been going on in jazz circa 2009, this channel is the place to start.

The rest of the Jazz Holiday roll-out includes a channel playing music from 2010 Grammy Jazz Nominees, a Decade: 2000s Channel, and one more surprise next week! I hope these gifts of music brighten up your season and help you discover some new favorite jazz artists. Please keep checking back for the updates, and have yourself a very, very happy Holiday!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

2010 Grammy Jazz Nominations or: Dang, It's Been a While Since I've Written Anything Here

I was reminded last night by none other than my loving mother that I hadn't posted anything on the AccuBlog in an embarrassingly long time. Combine those pangs of guilt with the NARAS' unveiling of the nominations for the 2010 Grammy Awards, and here I am writing on Ye Olde AccuBlog. Fun fact: last year's take on the 2009 Grammy Nominations constituted the 4th post ever on the AccuBlog. Now wasn't that fact fun?

Each year there is plenty of griping among music fans about the awards: the voters are out of touch, the winners don't reflect artistic merit and innovation, results are influenced by money and marketing, etc. I, for one, take part in this griping as much as the next guy. Most of the nominations are for the biggest, most lucrative pop stars in the world, not necessarily for the "best" or "most accomplished" musicians. I don't know a whole lot about today's pop and rock scene myself, but I'm pretty sure that any song off of Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca is ten times more worthy of an award than any of the five Record of the Year nominees.

BUT: I'm not in any place to pass judgment on the non-jazz nominees, because, for better or for worse, I've mostly listened to jazz this year. So let's do as I do far too often in casual conversation and change the subject to JAZZ!

My personal list surely would look different from that of the Grammy folks, but that's a given. Under-the-radar and/or way-out-left-field artists simply won't be in the running, and that's just the way it goes. Much of the music that was nominated was worthy, however, and none of it is blatantly commercial (Michael Buble and Chris Botti are relegated to other categories).

The consensus among jazz fans seems to be that the Grammy folks made some solid choices this year. Super-blogger Peter Hum posted his opinions on the jazz nominations at some point Wednesday night, and JazzTimes has a bit of insight, too. NPR's Blog Supreme posted an interesting piece about jazz musicians whose work is represented in nominations for non-jazz categories.

So, does anything else need to be said about the nominations? Not really. But that's the point of having a blog, right? Nobody's making you write (except maybe my mom, a little bit), you just do it because you have something to say and an open forum in which to say it. So, behold: the list of jazz nominees with my opinions inserted into the mix. My favorites in each category are in bold.

Category 44
Best Contemporary Jazz Album
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Stefon Harris & Blackout
[Concord Jazz]

Sounding Point
Julian Lage

At World's Edge
Philippe Saisse
[E1 Music]

Big Neighborhood
Mike Stern
[Heads Up International]

Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate
[Heads Up International]

My take: I'm assuming "Contemporary Jazz" implies some sort of jazz/funk influence. In that case, Stefon Harris' Urbanus is the undisputed champ of this category. His longstanding ensemble, Blackout, is a heaven-sent mixture of sophisticated post-bop and hard-grooving hip-hop. The CD is great, but, as I've witnessed on 3 separate occasions over the last 4 years, the band is just SICK in live performance. SICK. So I'm going to let that skew my judgment.

Oh dang, you know what else skewed my judgment? I haven't heard three of the other nominated CDs. Whoops. I'm pretty sure I'd still think Stefon should win, though. The other one I have heard, Sounding Point by wunderkind-turned-genuinely-talented-mature-musician Julian Lage, is also worthy of recognition. I do, however, find it a little bit strange to lump Lage in with the more funky, electric sounds of the other "Contemporary Jazz" artists. His disc is often pensive and hushed. The percussion is limited mostly to delicate djembe playing (no drum set), and many of songs are for acoustic stringed instruments only. Not exactly the funky fusion of Zawinul or Stern.

Category 45
Best Jazz Vocal Album
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of VOCAL tracks.)

No Regrets
Randy Crawford (& Joe Sample)
[PRA Records]

Dedicated To You: Kurt Elling Sings The Music Of Coltrane And Hartman
Kurt Elling
[Concord Jazz]

So In Love
Roberta Gambarini
[Groovin' High/Emarcy]

Luciana Souza

Tierney Sutton (Band)
[Telarc Jazz]

My take: I've actually listened to all but one of the vocal nominees (Sutton never made it to my desk), and my vote for the win would go to Kurt Elling. I really enjoyed Souza's tranquil Tide and Gambarini's tastefully traditional So In Love, but I've long held an affinity for Elling's aesthetic, and my fondness remained when he produced the live tribute album Dedicated to You (a big departure from his sprawling, imaginative studio efforts like The Messenger and Man in the Air).

There's just something about the guy's voice that says "No one has ever possessed an instrument like mine, and no one else ever will." Plus, the arrangements for string quartet and the tight, swinging backing band are perfectly matched to the alternately exhilarating and reflective mood of the album. JazzTimes columnist Nate Chinen recently wrote that Elling is the "most influential jazz vocalist of our time," and got a bit of flack in the comment section for his claim. What do you think? Is Elling over-rated? It might be partly Chicago pride, but I think he's a remarkable vocalist whose music will stand the test of time.

Related: Elling's personal recollections of performing at President Obama's state dinner in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Category 46
Best Improvised Jazz Solo
(For an instrumental jazz solo performance. Two equal performers on one recording may be eligible as one entry. If the soloist listed appears on a recording billed to another artist, the latter's name is in parenthesis for identification. Singles or Tracks only.)

Dancin' 4 Chicken
Terence Blanchard, soloist
Track from: Watts (Jeff "Tain" Watts)
[Dark Key Music]

All Of You
Gerald Clayton, soloist
Track from: Two-Shade

Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey
Roy Hargrove, soloist
Track from: Emergence
[Groovin' High/Emarcy]

On Green Dolphin Street
Martial Solal, soloist
Track from: Live At The Village Vanguard

Villa Palmeras
Miguel Zenón, soloist
Track from: Esta Plena
[Marsalis Music]

My take: This is a curious category. Thousands of jazz albums were released during the Grammys' window, with thousands more solos on those albums. How to single out the one "best" solo out of all of this musical material? I don't know. I'd really like to know what goes through a voter's mind when considering this category. Do they go for the solo with the most immediate emotional impact, or do they consider external factors like an artist's reputation or the overall quality of the album in question? If anybody knows, or is a voting member of the Academy, let me know.

I'm going with Miguel Zenon. Esta Plena is an ambitious album, a prodigious young musician's exploration of his Puerto Rican roots. Zenon's solo on "Villa Palmeras" is an expertly crafted statement, running the gamut from plain-spoken motifs to breakneck polyrhythmic runs. The solo also does that thing that every jazz combo director has told their students to do: it builds. Zenon interacts with the rhythm section with empathy, ramping up the intensity towards the end of the solo, with drummer Henry Cole following Zenon every step of the way.

As for the other nominees that I've heard, Blanchard's solo (on drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' Watts album) takes second place. It's a freewheeling, open-ended showcase of the trumpeter's technical prowess, accompanied by the brawny freebop time-keeping of drummer Watts and bassist Christian McBride. As for the Hargrove solo, I don't think it deserves the nod. Hargrove is undoubtedly one of the best trumpet players in recent times, but this is nowhere near his best work. 52-seconds of predictable blues licks, on the most straight-ahead track on his most straight-ahead album in some time, it offers nothing new or notable. It's good, it's swinging, and it calls to mind past trumpet giants like Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, but it's nothing to write home about.

Category 47
Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group
(For albums containing 51% or more playing time of INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Quartet Live
Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow & Antonio Sanchez
[Concord Jazz]

Brother To Brother
Clayton Brothers

Five Peace Band — Live
Chick Corea & John McLaughlin Five Peace Band
[Concord Records]

John Patitucci Trio
[Concord Jazz]

The Bright Mississippi
Allen Toussaint

My take: Yes! Finally a category where I'm really familiar with all of the nominees. I'm going with my gut on this one and rooting for Allen Toussaint's The Bright Mississippi. Wait, didn't I just chastise Roy Hargrove for being too traditional, and now I'm praising an album on which most of the songs were written over 80 years ago? Yup.

Just listen to it and you'll hear what I hear. I couldn't take this CD out of my player for weeks. Where much of the music I enjoy is food for the brain, this was good old home cooking for my soul. Warm and cozy, but also totally new and intriguing in a way. Toussaint and his all-star band (featuring heavyweights like Nicholas Payton, Don Byron and Marc Ribot), approach the ancient music of Toussant's native New Orleans with sincerity and heartfelt emotion. The alt-country rhythm section team of David Piltch and Jay Bellerose add some grease to the proceedings. Piltch's minimalist solo on the title track just might be my vote for best solo of the year, over Zenon.

As for the others: all strong efforts, with the Clayton Brothers and John Patitucci rising above the two all-star live albums, but nothing from this year stands out in my mind like The Bright Mississippi.

Category 48
Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
(For large jazz ensembles, including big band sounds. Albums must contain 51% or more INSTRUMENTAL tracks.)

Bob Florence Limited Edition
[MAMA Records]

Eternal Interlude
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

Fun Time
Sammy Nestico And The SWR Big Band
[Hänssler Classic]

Book One
New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
[World Village]

Lab 2009
University Of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band
[North Texas Jazz]

My take: Wow. I haven't heard any of these CDs. However, John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble produced one of my favorite albums of the last few years with A Blessing, so I'd assume that I would end up voting for Hollenbeck's Eternal Interlude. But I can't say. I'd appreciate input from anyone who has heard any of the nominees.

Category 49
Best Latin Jazz Album
(Vocal or Instrumental.)

Things I Wanted To Do
Chembo Corniel
[Chemboro Records]

Geoffrey Keezer

Brazilliance X 4
Claudio Roditi
[Resonance Records]

Juntos Para Siempre
Bebo Valdés And Chucho Valdés
[Sony Music/Calle 54]

Esta Plena
Miguel Zenón
[Marsalis Music]

My take: I haven't heard the Valdes or Corniel records, but of the three with which I'm familiar, I was most taken with Keezer's Áurea. I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a little bit weird about picking a white fellow from Wisconsin over natives of Brazil (Roditi) Puerto Rico (Zenon), but, just hear me out.

Áurea is Keezer's personal take on the music of Peru, and he staffs his band with both Peruvian musicians and fellow Americans. He fell in love with Peruvian music while playing at Festival Jazz Peru in Lima with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. (Side note: my college roommate at the time was a trombone sub in the orchestra at the festival, and has fond memories of hanging out with Schneider and Keezer).

Áurea is a wonderfully diverse album, ranging from the offbeat funk of "Una Bruja Buena" to the tender ballad singing of vocalist Sofia Rei Koutsovitis on "La Flor Azul." The common thread is lyricism -- every tune is singable, melodic, and just downright pretty, in the best possible way.

As I already mentioned, Esta Plena is also very worthy. The Roditi is a strong modern Brazilian jazz outing, but doesn't have the same ambition or sheer beauty of the Zenon and Keezer discs.