Thursday, April 5, 2012

Let the Festival Season Begin! (In New Orleans)

The onset of warmer weather can mean only one thing: music festival season is nigh! There may be other joys that Summer brings, but for me it's all about savoring great music in the great outdoors. AccuJazz has a tradition of creating channels dedicated to the jazz festivals we're most excited about, from Montréal to Monterey, and we're getting ready to offer up updated playlists based on all of this year's big fests, too.

The first of the main jazz events to happen each year is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, taking place this April 27 through May 6. Naturally, that's also the first festival channel we're launching on AccuJazz. (How about you launch the channel now before going on?)

If you visit the festival's official website, you'll see pictures of big-name headliners like the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Cee Lo Green. But if you check out the full line-up, you'll notice there is indeed a wealth of exceptional jazz scheduled to take place at this year's event. Our channel (you just launched it, right?) leaves out the Eagles and the Boss in favor of a diverse mix of jazz artists, from Grammy-winning "It" girl Esperanza Spalding to the legendary Herbie Hancock. Of course, there's always a slew of exceptional local New Orleans talent including Ellis Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and the usual line-up of stellar brass bands (Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, and Soul Rebels, for starters).

Whether you're actually planning on attending Jazz Fest or just wish you were, AccuJazz's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2012 channel makes for a great listen. Be sure to look out for more channels as the festival season really gets under way in the next few months.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Favorite Jazz of 2011

Coming in a mere 2.5 months later than your average jazz critic, I'm presenting my very own list of favorite 2011 jazz albums. The list has already been available in channel form for a few days, on my Staff Picks channel (listen now), but now I'm finally presenting it in numerated list form.

When looking for themes in my picks, I'm slightly (but only slightly) embarrassed to see that the top-10 is heavy on long-established personal favorites: Ben Allison [pictured], The Claudia Quintet, Dave King, Roy Haynes. This might suggest that I was biased to like these albums before I ever listened to them. What's more likely is that these bands and musicians are consistently excellent and didn't fail in 2011. Also, my 2nd favorite album of the year is by a little-known DC-based musician of whom I had no previous knowledge. So maybe I did give everyone a fair shake.

I just want to take one moment to highlight that album, Secret Handshake by Brian Settles. I was hooked from the first few seconds of the lead-off track, and it has remained in steady rotation on my iPod, computer and car stereo ever since. It's a seemingly low-budget, humble affair that nonetheless creates a very distinct and disciplined sound-world unlike anything I've heard in a long time. I didn't even receive a press release about the CD; it managed to make its way to the forefront of my listening habits with zero hype or back-story preceding it. That's unfortunately not as common as you'd think. But still, the much more hyped and more expensive-sounding Action-Refraction by Ben Allison did eke out a close 1st place finish in my list.

Below, I've listed all 30 albums that are playing on the Staff Picks channel: an ordered top 20 plus 10 honorable mentions. I hope you enjoy listening to the channel and discover a new favorite album or two for yourself.

Top 20

1. Ben Allison - Action Refraction
2. Brian Settles and Central Union - Secret Handshake
3. Ambrose Akinmusire - When the Heart Emerges Glistening
4. Miguel Zenón - Alma Adentro: the Puerto Rican Songbook
5. Claudia Quintet - What Is the Beautiful?
6. Dave King Trucking Company - Good Old Light
7. Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland - James Farm
8. Mike Reed's My Silence - It Only Happens at Night
9. Roy Haynes - Roy-Alty
10. Rez Abassi - Suno Suno
11. Starlicker - Double Demon
12. Chris Speed's Endangered Blood - Endangered Blood
13. JD Allen Trio - Victory!
14. Gretchen Parlato - The Lost and Found
15. Gerald Cleaver, William Parker and Craig Taborn - Out of This World's Distortions
16. Amir ElSaffar - Inana
17. Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo - Songs of Mirth and Melancholy
18. Benny Green - Source
19. Darius Jones Trio - Big Gurl (Smell My Dream)
20. The Four Bags - Forth

Honorable Mentions:

Led Bib - Bring Your Own
Jason Adasiewicz - Spacer
Chris Dingman - Waking Dreams
Steve Coleman - The Mancy of Sound
Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays and Patrick Zimmerli - Modern Music
Carlo De Rosa's Cross Fade - Brain Dance
Josh Nelson - Discoveries
Deep Blue Organ Trio - Wonderful!
Colorlist - The Fastest Way to Become the Ocean
Noah Preminger - Before the Rain

Listen to the Staff Picks channel now!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Best Jazz of 2011, According to the Critics

Click here for our Best Jazz of 2011 Channel.

The best jazz album of 2011, according to the 122 people who participated in this year's Rhapsody Jazz Critics' Poll (formerly the Village Voice Jazz Critics' Poll), was made by an artist who first came to prominence in the 1950s. Road Shows, Vol. 2, by Sonny Rollins, won in a landslide. Rollins also received recognition from much higher powers than jazz critics, receiving the Kennedy Center honors from the president. Interestingly, the Rhapsody poll's No. 2 spot belongs to one of the youngest musicians on the list, 29-year-old trumpet phenom Ambrose Akinmusire. Akinmusire's exhilarating Blue Note Records debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, seemed to appeal to more traditional- and progressive-minded voters alike.

The rest of the list is typically diverse, ranging from quintessential New York free improvisation (David S. Ware's Planetary Unknown) to R&B-inflected modern jazz (Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic Project) and many well-conceived experiments in fusing jazz with ethnic musics from around the globe (Amir ElSaffar's Inana Suite, Vijay Iyer's Tirtha and Miguel Zenon's Alma Adentro). There are also an eye-opening six-and-a-half solo piano discs (the half being one disc of Matthew Shipp's double-disc Art of the Improviser).

To bring you, the listener, the best of what jazz had to offer in 2011, we're continuing in our annual tradition of creating a channel based on this definitive crtitics' list. Just click here to start listening. Our channel is playing 42 out of the 60 albums on the list, with programming weighed more heavily towards the highest-ranking albums. Therefore, you'll hear more Sonny and Ambrose than Starlicker (a great Chicago trio that came in 58th place).

As for my personal favorites, you can listen to my Staff Picks channel to hear my top 30 albums. I'll be posting a blog soon about the selections.

What were your favorite albums released in 2011? Do you agree with the critics? Do you think important albums got snubbed? Leave your opinions in the comments, or talk to me on Twitter.

Again, click here to start listening to the Best of 2011 Channel.

Monday, January 16, 2012

R.I.P. Sam Rivers

The great multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Sam Rivers died Monday, December 26 at the age of 88. Rivers' death makes for the third important jazz figure to pass in the final months of 2011, along with drummer Paul Motian and trombonist/composer Bob Brookmeyer.

To celebrate Rivers' legacy, we are featuring him on the AccuJazz Saxophone channel. Along with the usual lineup of hundreds of jazz saxophonists of every style and era, you'll hear an extra large dose of Rivers' playing. We've included his well-loved 1960s Blue Note output as well as his adventurous big band work and albums where Rivers appears as a sideman with artists like Miles Davis, Bobby Hutcherson and Dave Holland.

Whether playing swinging post-bop with organist Larry Young or grand-scale avant-garde jazz with his own Studio Rivbea Orchestra, Rivers always played the saxophone (or flute, or piano, or whatever else was in his hands) with strikingly clear articulation and sonic focus. His music reflected a rigorous and uncompromisingly unique vision, whether creating stirring improvisations seemingly out of thin air or constructing intricate soundscapes for other musicians to interpret. His idiosyncratic composition style, which fused complex written material with free improvisation, influenced generations of adventurous jazz musicians including Steve Coleman and Jason Moran.

For a musician often affixed with the "avant-garde" label, Rivers was quite versatile: he played with bebop pianist/composer Tadd Dameron early in his career, played briefly in Miles Davis' renowned 1960s quintet, and even toured in Dizzy Gillespie's band. There is also a broad stylistic palette among music recorded under his own name. Consider the gorgeous melodicism of 1964's "Beatrice" (Rivers' most famous composition) and the frenetic energy of "Capricorn Rising," a 1975 album co-led by Rivers and pianist Don Pullen.

While many octogenarian jazz musicians find their skills steadily waning, Rivers was arguably still playing at his peak up until his death. He spent the last two decades of his life in Orlando, where he led a version of his famed Rivbea Orchestra. This video of a 2010 performance by that group displays not only Rivers' vital sax playing, but his continued compositional ingenuity and playful rapport with his band. Isn't it just great to see an old guy so happy doing what he does?

Enjoy our Sam Rivers feature on the Saxophone channel and look below for further reading:

-Nate Chinen's obituary in the New York Times
-Peter Hum's blog post, with some great videos
-Hank Shteamer's post, with recommended listening

Here's the list of albums featuring Sam Rivers to listen for on the Saxophone channel:

As a leader

-Fuchsia Swing Song
-Dimensions and Extensions
-Violet Violets

As a sideman

-Miles Davis: Miles in Tokyo
-Larry Young: Into Somethin'
-Bobby Hutcherson: Dialogue
-Tony Williams: Spring
-Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds
-Don Pullen: Capricorn Rising