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.