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The 10 Greatest Jazz Albums of the 21st Century

I created this list because I know it’s difficult to weed through the musical landscape today and find good jazz. All of these records were released after the year 2000, so hopefully this will expose new listeners to many of the great jazz artists working today.

Honorable Mentions: Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation, and Flow, Milford Graves – Stories, Brian Blade & Fellowship – Landscapes, Fred Frith – Freedom in Fragments, anything by Arve Henriksen

10. Susanne Abbuehl – Compass. The lone ECM album on this list is naturally the most subdued selection here. Compass is a Night Album among Night Albums. Though the arrangement of clarinet/piano/drums that washes over the listener like a gentle sea is vintage ECM, Abbuehl’s enchanting voice sets her apart from other artists in the label’s catalog. Angular harmonies and often free-time accompaniment compliment heady lyrics based on Joyce, Berio, and William Carlos Williams. Any pretentiousness to be found in the word “sublime” simply doesn’t apply when describing this much beauty.

9. Rob Mazurek – Sound Is. Cornetist and leader of multiple bands, Rob Mazurek has been a driving force in avant-garde jazz for the past decade or so, placing his unmistakable stamp on a wide variety of albums. Sound Is assembles a supergroup of musicians that includes jazz stalwart Josh Abrams on piano, Tortoise drummer John Herndon, and bassist Matthew Lux of Iron and Wine and Isotope 217. Whereas several of Mazurek’s other ventures can be viewed as genre-based excursions, Sound Is experiments within the confines of motifs and song structures that, while touching upon a multitude of compelling musical ideas, embody the essence of jazz.

8. William Parker/Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra – Mayor of Punkville. Though Mayor of Punkville may be flawed, sprawling, and chaotic, it’s also Parker’s magnum opus – a masterpiece concocted within one of the same genius fever-dreams where Monk and Mingus composed their greatest work. Tunes like “3 Steps to Noh Mountain” and “James Baldwin to the Rescue” reveal Parker to be a cultured spirit that can float between traditional and progressive worlds, all while directing a huge ensemble toward manic, inspired performances. Mayor of Punkville is the White Album of 21st Century Jazz.

7. Evan Parker – Time Lapse. What can be said of Evan Parker?- Prolific, daring, virtuosic. Time Lapse is the culmination of a studied career in which Parker investigated all manner of sounds. Having lead an electro-acoustic jazz ensemble and popped up as a sideman to a smorgasbord of off-the-wall artists (including one on this very list), Parker is a legend among jazzmen, and an avant-garde guru. One of his most memorable works, Time Lapse finds him using circular breathing to layer multiple tracks of pointillist soprano sax-playing to somehow create not chaos, but peace and meditation. The hyper-real, hallucinatory atmospheres provoked by Parker on this album are nothing short of quantum.

6. Exploding Star Orchestra – Stars Have Shapes. Mazurek rears his cornet again as the leader of this much larger ensemble. Here his foundation of players from Sound Is are complimented by gongs, clarinets, trombone, and a dense layer of electronic samples that almost move Stars Have Shapes away from jazz entirely. But the ever-present horns and percussion keep the soundscape just grounded enough for transcendent ambience to hover over the whole proceeding like a layer of fog. Stars Have Shapes was recorded over forty years after Coltrane’s passing, but ESO follows the same thread of free mysticism spun by Trane on records like Ascension and Meditations. Both artists arrive at a higher plain accessible only by blowing up the structural formulas of jazz.

5. Spring Heel Jack – Masses. Masses served as a turning point in the career of Spring Heel Jack, which began life as a drum & bass duo until core members John Coxon and Ashley Wales ventured into the foray of avant-garde jazz. While several of the group’s records could have landed on this list, the thumping electronics against ripping sax lines heard on Masses make it perhaps their most revolutionary effort. Released as an entry in Matthew Shipp’s excellent “Blue Series” on the Thirsty Ear label, the album credits read like a who’s who of contemporary “out” jazz: Shipp, Evan Parker, William Parker, Tim Berne, etc. It’s enough diverse talent to produce pieces like “Chiaroscuro” and “Red Worm,” progressive tunes that do for jazz what Radiohead’s Kid A (released just a year prior) did for rock – open up a brand new palette of viable sound textures to the genre’s listeners.

4. Drew Gress – 7 Black Butterflies. Aside from a remarkably lush, full sound that would make Rudy Van Gelder proud, 7 Black Butterflies documents the moment when bassist Drew Gress came into his own as a composer. Gress’s bass propels his quintet forward – along with the warm tones of the horns, these meandering but coherent compositions recall the best years of Andrew Hill or Grachan Moncur III, artists whose work ran the gamut from serene to manic, traditional to progressive, bop to avant garde, all while remaining distinct and evocative. 7 Black Butterflies touches on the full palette of human emotion, which makes it perhaps the most universally appealing album on this list.

3. David Murray Latin Big Band – Now Is Another Time. With Now Is Another Time, David Murray accomplished quite a feat: he created a masterpiece while leading a huge ensemble that managed to not only keep their egos in check, but focus on, and strive toward, his unified vision. Even more impressive is the fact that Murray achieved this with a set of dense, complex Latin jazz tunes molded from polyrhythms, shifting structures, tempo changes, and precise arrangements, all of which are nailed by the crack ensemble he amassed. The Latin Big Band included a handful of the usual suspects found in Murray’s groups like Hugh Ragin and Craig Harris, but the true stars are the many Cuban players (especially the percussionists) who never falter throughout this epic, 70-minute affair. Don’t let that running time scare you off, though: Now Is Another Time is the rare 70-minute record that warrants its length.

2. John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – Eternal Interlude. Hollenbeck is a consummate original, a composer first and foremost, and one of the genius progressive voices in jazz, on par with Anthony Braxton or Charles Mingus (a clear influence on this record). Although Eternal Interlude is a collection of pieces each commissionsed by a different jazz ensemble or orchestral group, it serves as a cohesive requiem for those close to Hollenbeck who passed away during the making of the album. The music itself can toy with the soul, inching ever deeper into it, growing more enlightened with each new structural sequence. It’s a cherished rarity in jazz when a 19-minute, longform orchestral piece like the title track happens to be through-composed, exhibiting the harmonic awareness of Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige suite, as well as an intellect and intensity nearly on par with Mingus’s greatest work, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Like those landmark records in their time, Eternal Interlude should stand as a pillar of this era’s jazz for years to come.

1. Bobby Previte – The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró. Always willing to thrust himself into uncharted territory, under-appreciated percussionist Bobby Previte, who Allmusic calls “dextrous, pliant, and exciting,” has tackled a number of off-kilter musical forms throughout the years. From a commissioned score for the Moscow Circus, to the quirky, funked-out jazz-rock of Coalition of the Willing, Previte’s resume is diverse, interesting, but sometimes littered with mixed results. Not so with “23 Constellations.” Here, Previte again sets up unconventional parameters for himself, composing a series of ekphrastic vignettes representing Miró’s surrealist “Constellation” paintings, all relatively small-scale works of 15 by 18 inches.

Previte succeeds at his task, with stunning results. Though the longest piece clocks in at 3:07, and most fall in the 2 to 2 1/2 minute range, Previte’s band conjures a unique world in all of them, using horns, vibes, chimes, harp, and even subtle, complimentary electronics to evoke the precise mood captured in each corresponding painting by Miró (all of which are reprinted in the CD liner notes). From the vibrant light of opening track “Sunrise,” to the eerie mysticism of swans, nightengales, and other types of birds, Previte’s compositions sometimes prove to be more visual than the paintings themselves. But above all else, the reason these “23 Constellations” claim first place lies with their ability do what few artworks in any idiom can, and what jazz is capable of perhaps to a greater extent than any other art form: they make the listener feel alive, and grateful for it.

2 Graphic Scores

“Very Dilated Loops,” for any number of instruments, key of C.

Very Dilated Loops

The above document is a copy of the report from the composer’s recent Computed Axial Tomography, or “CAT” scan. It is to be read from left to right, and then top to bottom. Certain words of either historical, theoretical, or expressive musical significance have been circled in the report. The interpreter(s) of the score must direct the style and mood of their performance in accordance with each of these words, once read.

In addition, certain words in the report have been underlined. The first letter in each underlined word correlates to a musical note which must be made sharp upon arrival at that word. Thus, when a performer reaches the underlined word, “disease,” for example, he or she must sharp all D notes performed thereafter, but only until the next circled word is reached, at which point the score reverts back to the key of “C” proper.

The score ends with a single sound (which must be played in unison if the score is to be performed by more than one musician), which is an interpretation of one of the images from the exam, pictured at the conclusion of the score in the bottom right.

Graphic Score # 5 – “She’s a Thief,” solo guitar improvisation, 5 min.

001

The above grid represents frets 1-12 of a guitar fretboard. The vertical code of colors to the right represents the order, in 30 second intervals, of which color may be played. Thus, the improviser begins with yellow, playing only the yellow notes for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, he or she moves on to orange and plays only those notes for 30 seconds, and so forth. The notes may be played in any order, any number of times, in any speed, style, or rhythm chosen by the improviser

Soundtracks

“The Kindness of Strangers”

Film by Bradley Paul Valentine, Soundtrack by Christopher Costabile

“An Image Cannot Be Static”

Film by Jason Kushner, Painting by Corey DeLise, Sound by Christopher Costabile

Experimental Music Video Performances

“Unfolding”

“Philanthropy”

 “Hand Me My Pills, Dear”

Aonuma Keeps Returning To Zelda In The Hope Of Making A Perfect Game

Originally appeared on NintendoLife

Legend of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma exhibits all the traits of a true artist, from a willingness to buck the confines of tradition to the overwhelming desire to branch out into different territory. Now, he has admitted that with every new Zelda adventure, he has been striving to make the perfect video game.

In an interview with GamesTM, Aonuma revealed that when he sets out to work on a Zelda game, he expects it to be his last. Afterwards, however, he experiences a lingering feeling of regret over things that could have been improved, and this repeating cycle of near-flawlessness keeps him returning to the series.

In a rather candid personal admission, Aonuma told GamesTM that he wishes to come as close to perfection as possible before the end of his developing career, lest he should leave the industry wondering what could have been:

I always make these games with the thought that this is going to be my last. However, every time we finish work on it, I always still have regrets, wishing that we could do this or that, and end up wanting to make another Zelda game. I guess that could come to a close if I finally make a perfect game, but perhaps I would not be able to create such a thing even if I spent my whole life on it. However, I know I won’t be able to keep working as a developer forever, so I really would like to create something as close to perfection as possible not too far into the future and be able to retire with no regrets.

With Aonuma currently spearheading numerous innovations to the Zelda series, such as the new items system at the forefront of A Link Between Worlds, or the proposed changes to Hyrule in Zelda for Wii U, the progressive developer’s ultimate goal of perfection may soon be at hand.

Cut To Black Review

Originally appeared on CinemaFunk

Triple threat filmmaker Dan Eberle has torn a page or two from the fertile scripts of David Mamet to craft Cut To Black, a gritty-but-polished crime drama about a disgraced ex-cop’s last bid at salvation. In addition to directing and writing the film, Eberle plays Bill Ivers, a former corrupt police officer who lost his badge a long time ago, but can’t seem to drag himself away from the “corrupt” part. Burdened by a drinking problem, financial destitution, and a loveless affair with his landlord’s wife, Bill finds himself in the thick of trouble once again when former boss John Lord, who now happens to be running for governor of New York, requests Bill’s services.

Though Bill blames Lord for landing him in his current position via a job gone wrong, Bill reluctantly accepts Lord’s new proposal, which requires Bill to keep tabs on Lord’s estranged daughter while protecting her from a stalker who taunts her with disturbing letters. As can be expected from any good neo-noir, Bill’s new case thrusts him into a world of intrigue and dark forces. While some of Cut To Black’s plot devices border on the cliché – characters who aren’t what they appear, the brooding private eye with a dark past – the film’s screenplay muscles through those plot points with precision, brevity, and even courage.

The subtle depth residing in Cut To Black is never more apparent than when a recurring nosebleed leads Bill to discover that his death is just around the corner – a revelation with resulting themes that echo those in Ikiru, the Japanese masterwork by Akira Kurosawa. Like Mr. Watanabe, the protagonist of Kurosawa’s film, Bill struggles to wring some sense of meaning and purpose from his final actions on earth. Even the symmetrical last shot of Bill’s body slumping in a field is reminiscent of the symmetry in Kurosawa’s famous image of his lead actor sitting near-lifeless on a swing.

But this is noir after all, and Watanabe’s innocence and naivete are two traits that Bill Ivers could never muster. In fact, his suffering is framed by a trio of femme fatales whose various indiscretions take their toll on the man. Sara, the landlord’s wife who keeps luring Bill into adultery, is never looked upon by Bill as more than an attractive distraction, whereas Lord’s daughter, Jessica, represents the chance Bill never had. Once he fully uncovers the truth about her past and the purity of her love for her boyfriend, Duane, Bill spends his final days working to free them from both the clutches of Lord and the financial debt owed by Duane to a local crime boss named Yates.

The film’s third femme fatale is Liz, a mysterious woman dying of AIDS, who may have once been Bill’s lover (or wife?). Her cloudy and tragic past is tied to Bill’s through the same case that sent Bill to jail years prior, destroying his career as a police officer. With a tip of the fedora to film noir of old, Cut to Black attempts to portray these past events like some kind of shrouded, symbolic Chinatown, but a bit more backstory could have provided greater emotional connection to the characters.

That said, a round of solid performances by the cast of Cut To Black, in addition to some incisive editing and a fantastic musical score that is three parts post-rock, one part Cliff Martinez (with a dash of Steve Reich added in), all work to make up for a few shortcomings in the narrative. Eberle’s performance is lean and strong, while James Alba as John Lord, and Paul Bowen as the eccentric Yates, both steal the small handful of their respective scenes. The film’s youngsters are notable as well, as Jillaine Gill turns in a potential breakout performance as Jessica, while Joe Stipek, though awkward in his delivery of dialogue, calls to mind Ewan McGregor in both his looks and energy.

There are scenes in Cut To Black, like its one or two action sequences, in which the small budget forces the film to show its seams, but Cut To Black feeds off of these limitations, managing to use everything at its disposal – barren locations, basic wardrobes, a no-nonsense script – to tell its story and convey its simple but profound point. Much like the protagonist he plays in his film, Dan Eberle has taken the chance he’s been given, thrown caution to the wind, and has, with definition, done something good.

Wolf of Wall Street Review

Originally appeared on CinemaFunk

While hilarity and flashes of filmmaking genius punctuate cinema guru Martin Scorsese’s uber-decadent The Wolf of Wall Street, this cautionary tale about avarice in America is a messy magnum opus that too often revels in the very way of life it is warning against.

Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young, aspiring stockbroker with a loving wife, a small but growing bank account, and big ambitions. He soon discovers that he can make more money peddling pink-sheet penny stocks to the wealthy than he can clamoring for a miniscule slice of the larger financial pie at any of the major Wall Street firms. Thus, he enlists a few of his old pals to start his own wildly successful brokerage company, Stratton Oakmont, which quickly devolves into a conglomerate of decadence and corruption.

Appropriately arriving on Christmas day, that very culmination of American consumerism, The Wolf of Wall Street spares no expense in revealing its themes of sex, drugs, money, and more sex, drugs, and money. Within the first five minutes, a dwarf has been hurled Evil Kneivel-style into a giant, dollar-sign bullseye, and Leonardo DiCaprio has blown cocaine through a straw and into a prostitute’s bare posterior just before administering it a wicked smack. Far from the most wholesome Yuletide moviegoing experience, viewers of The Wolf of Wall Street should be prepared for a near-endless stream of nudity, Quaaludes (including an already infamous romp featuring DiCaprio and Jonah Hill both wasted on the drug), infidelity, and shock value for the sake of humor.

While this onslaught on the eyes may sound intriguing coming from the cultured and charismatic lens of Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street fails to convey a unified message or ground itself in any definitive set of values. This is largely because it never slows down enough to give viewers a real sense of who Belfort and his cohorts were before they got rich, nor does it adequately convey the gravity or consequence of their actions. In fact, the only consistent central conflict throughout the film proves to be whether or not Belfort can stay out of jail; but even the threat of incarceration comes off as lighthearted and lacking in severity, and never moreso than when he finally does land in the slammer. With the exception of one scene late in the film in which Belfort tries to steal his own daughter away after his wife demands a divorce, none of The Wolf of Wall Street’s numerous indiscretions and debaucherous moments feels truly depraved.

On the plus side, the performances in the film more than deserve the praise bestowed upon them by the press. DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, as Belfort’s eccentric sidekick Donnie Azoff, are equally brilliant. Especially impressive is the fact that both actors manage never to break character (or their accents) despite the film’s many physically demanding scenes. Not to be outdone are Rob Reiner and Matthew McConaughey in two small but hilarious turns as Belfort’s father and first boss, respectively.

But The Wolf of Wall Street is a misstep not only for Scorsese, who falls back on too many bland close-up shots and a wealth of unnecessary narration to tell his story, but also for his usually impeccable, longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who recently revealed that the film was originally four hours long. Unsurprisingly, those cuts can be felt, as large blocks of dialogue appear to be missing from crucial scenes, and a handful of clunky edits – clearly in place to satisfy the 3-hour running time – leave the film’s presentation too brisk and episodic, which only serves to further muddy its already murky themes.

Goodfellas and Casino – two films from which several sequences in Wolf of Wall Street are almost directly culled – also dealt with the excesses of the filthy rich; however, those films conveyed a mounting sense of paranoia and tragedy that left viewers feeling like disaster lurked under every line of coke, and things could all come crashing down at any moment. Scorsese’s latest criminal epic gets so mired in its comedic extravagance (an unfamiliar tone for the director) that it coasts right through Belfort’s fall from power without hitting rock bottom or even convincing its audience that rock bottom would be such a bad thing. More focus on Belfort’s first marriage, or the FBI investigation into his company, could have salvaged some valuable moral perspective on his downfall by portraying Belfort‘s destructive lifestyle and business practices from a vantage point other than his own. Perhaps that hour of extra footage could have solved some of these apparent shortcomings in the script.

In a scene near the end of the film that feels far less tragic than it should, the FBI agent who brought down Belfort surveys a subway car full of blue collar Americans on his way home. He appears to be reminded of Belfort’s condemnation of the insignificant and mundane lives of the working class. But rather than sympathize with them and ultimately reject Belfort’s lifestyle, does the agent regret his personal choice to work for an honest wage, wishing he’d instead followed in Belfort’s footsteps, accepted his bribe, and lived the same kind of lawless, lavish lifestyle? After three inebriating hours of sex, drugs, and money, and with no real hangover to show for it…who could blame him?

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