Jazz Top Ten 2005:
Fractious Solidarity for Troubled Times

Balance and teamwork from individualists the record business considers totally impractical

by Tom Hull

 1. William Parker Quartet: *Sound Unity* (AUM Fidelity):
    balance and teamwork distinguish every album on this list,
    but only a great bassist can hold your attention with this
    much firepower on trumpet, sax and drums.

 2. Anthony Braxton: *20 Standards (Quartet) 2003* (Leo):
    spread out over four discs, the set structures delimit a
    playpen for Kevin O'Neil's cool guitar and the leader's
    lofty sax.

 3. Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock: *Symbiosis* (Spartacus):
    duets, tenor sax and piano, standard stuff made exquisite.

 4. Craig Harris: *Souls Within the Veil* (Aquastra):
    heavy with history and horns, sprightly with African percussion,
    sublime resistance against the oppression of black souls.

 5. FME: *Cuts* (Okka Disk):
    stands for Free Music Ensemble, but it's really Ken Vandermark's
    postpunk power trio, where freedom reverts to form.

 6. Paraphrase: *Pre-Emptive Denial* (Screwgun):
    another sax trio, with Tim Berne in the catbird seat, hemmed
    in by Drew Gress and Tom Rainey.

 7. Dennis González's Spirit Meridian: *Idle Wild* (Clean Feed):
    loquacious Oliver Lake fleshes out this quartet's healing
    music for distressing times.

 8. Fieldwork: *Simulated Progress* (Pi):
    Vijay Iyer's robust piano leads Steve Lehman's skiny alto sax,
    which is the idea.

 9. Sirone Bang Ensemble: *Configuration* (Silkheart):
    less ambitious than *Vietnam* but more fun, a stripped down
    string section with Charles Gayle in the back seat.

10. The Vandermark 5: *Alchemia* (Not Two):
    twelve discs from one week in Krakow, true grit from the
    hardest working man in avant-jazz.


  • William Parker Quartet: Sound Unity (AUM Fidelity): This is Parker's pianoless quartet, a format that demands two horn players who can dance - who play together even when they seem to be flying off at odd tangents. Trumpeter Lewis Barnes and alto saxist Rob Brown, little known outside of Parker's discography, make a lovely couple. But in this quartet bassist Parker and drummer Hamid Drake aren't content to keep time: They, too, dance. Perfect balance - the political analog is equality - is impossible to achieve, but if you listen to this record four times, each time focusing on a player, you'll hear four slightly distinct albums, each one coherent. They did it.
  • Craig Harris: Souls Within the Veil (Aquastra): Writing in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois was perhaps the first to recognize in Afro-American music's sublime resistance to oppression a tool that would eventually break the noose of racism. DuBois' book is trombonist Craig Harris' Rosetta Stone, but his extended pieces owe a more immediate debt to his early '80s work with the David Murray Octet. His "ten souls using ten timeless veils" are heavy with horns and sprightly with percussion. Kahil El'Zabar's taste of Africa is essential, and the soloists shine - Steve Coleman, Don Byron, and Hamiet Bluiett especially.
  • Tommy Smith & Brian Kellock: Symbiosis (Spartacus): "Cherokee" may have been God's gift to saxophonists, but none have played it as delicately and sensitively as Smith does here. It leads into a series of exquisite ballads, from "Moonlight in Vermont" to "Skylark," each more lovely than the last. And this isn't one of those ballads albums, either. Smith picks up the pace with "Honeysuckle Rose" and reaches into his bebop bag on "Bernie's Tune," where Kellock finally emerges from his supporting role to show you how Bud Powell might have done it. Smith was astonishing back in his teens. Now he's managed to get past that stage and become well-rounded.
  • Anthony Braxton: 20 Standards (Quartet) 2003 (Leo): Four more CDs from the same tour that yielded last year's 4-CD *23 Standards (Quartet) 2003*. The bounty comes from Braxton picking fresh songs each show - jazz pieces more often than the usual chestnuts, with old favorites Brubeck and Desmond most prominent. The pieces stretch out leisurely, with Kevin O'Neil's deft guitarwork often the highlight, and Braxton's saxes favoring the high registers. Smart and cool, the most accessible and simply pleasurable set he's done.
  • Paraphrase: Pre-Emptive Denial (Screwgun): The group pits saxophonist Tim Berne with longtime collaborators Drew Gress and Tom Rainey for long, freewheeling improvs. They released two records from 1996-98, then nothing until this set from The Stone in May 2005. I doubt that they were planning on releasing this one either, but rarely has spontaneous invention meshed so perfectly. Gress delivers the fat bottom you want in a bass, but the real star is Rainey, whose drums are exceptionally loud and precise, shifting the time so adroitly he constructs a labrynthine cage for the sax. Berne paces, tests his limits, but ultimately plays within himself. He's never sounded so cogent.
  • Dennis González's Spirit Meridian: Idle Wild (Clean Feed): The good doctor's prescription for a country "sick with Bush" is "Bush Medicine" - a delightful calypso fragment recalling "St. Thomas" with an Ornette twist, but fractured into discrete bits. Small pleasures, take them when you can. Oliver Lake's playfulness enhances González's spiritfulness, while the rhythm section keeps things loose. Of course, Bush Medicine is only a palliative. A cure starts with surgery, and the rehabilitation is likely to be slow and wrenching, with so much damage to be undone, and so much that cannot be undone.
  • FME: Cuts (Okka Disk): What makes Free Music Ensemble Ken Vandermark's best pure improv showcase is how conducive bassist Nate McBride and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love are to his basic style - rough, rock hard, punkish. That may not have been the idea. Most cuts have soft parts - clarinet with minimal accompaniment, often with McBride arco - before they kick out the jams.
  • Fieldwork: Simulated Progress (Pi): On first approximation, this is a piano trio with Steve Lehman playing the bass parts on alto and sopranino sax, where they take on a life of their own. Lehman has such a strained, narrow tone that his work tends to duck behind the piano, anchoring the rhythm and painting the background. But then the pianist is Vijay Iyer, who can lead by the sheer force of his percussiveness and has a knack for putting the finishing touches on whatever Lehman and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee throw at him.
  • The Vandermark 5: Alchemia (Not Two): Of course, this is over the top, even for an artist as exhaustively documented as Ken Vandermark: five nights in Krakow, two sets each, plus a couple of jam sessions bring the total to twelve discs. Serious students can plot variations in the repeated songs, note how three new songs compare to the later studio versions on *The Color of Memory*, and see how the band works classics by Rollins, Kirk, and others. The rest of us will just pick discs at random. The surprises seem endless.

Bubbling under the top ten:

  1. Scott Hamilton: Back in New York (Concord)
  2. Gerry Hemingway Quartet: The Whimbler (Clean Feed)
  3. Billy Bang: Vietnam: Reflections (Justin Time)
  4. George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra: The 80th Birthday Concert (Concept Publishing, 2CD)
  5. Anat Cohen: Place & Time (Anzic)
  6. Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed)
  7. Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake/William Parker: Blue Winter (Eremite, 2CD)
  8. Vijay Iyer: Reimagining (Savoy Jazz)
  9. Jerry Granelli: Sandhills Reunion (Songlines)
  10. The David S. Ware Quartets: Live in the World (1998-2003, Thirsty Ear, 3CD)
  11. Jenny Scheinman: 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone)
  12. Joshua Redman Elastic Band: Momentum (Nonesuch)
  13. Ibrahim Electric: Meets Ray Anderson (Stunt)
  14. Steve Lacy/Joëlle Léandre: One More Time (Leo)
  15. Avishai Cohen Trio & Ensemble: At Home (RazDaz/Sunnyside)
  16. Ted Nash and Odeon: La Espada de la Noche (Palmetto) *
  17. Marc Ribot: Spiritual Unity (Pi)
  18. Uri Caine/Bedrock: Shelf-Life (Winter & Winter)
  19. John Surman: Way Back When (1969, Cuneiform)
  20. Either/Orchestra: Éthiopiques 20: Live in Addis (Buda Musique, 2CD)
  21. Happy Apple: The Peace Between Our Companies (Sunnyside)
  22. Roswell Rudd & the Mongolian Buryat Band: Blue Mongol (Sunnyside)
  23. Garage a Trois: Outre Mer (Telarc)
  24. William Parker: Luc's Lantern (Thirsty Ear)
  25. Sheila Jordan + Cameron Brown: Celebration (High Note)
  26. Benoît Delbecq Unit: Phonetics (Songlines)
  27. Tom Christensen: New York School (Playscape)
  28. Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Other Valentines (Atavistic)
  29. One More: Music of Thad Jones (IPO)
  30. Scott Amendola Band: Believe (Cryptogramophone)
  31. Sonny Rollins: Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert) (Milestone) *
  32. Henry Kaiser & Wadada Leo Smith: Yo Miles! Upriver (Cuneiform, 2CD)
  33. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Not in Our Name (Verve)
  34. Sonny Simmons: The Traveller (Jazzaway)
  35. Rich Halley Trio: Mountains and Plains (Louie)
  36. Greg Osby: Channel Three (Blue Note)
  37. Triptych Myth: The Beautiful (AUM Fidelity)
  38. The Claudia Quintet: Semi-Formal (Cuneiform)
  39. Gerald Wilson Orchestra: In My Time (Mack Avenue)
  40. Peter Epstein/Brad Shepik/Matt Kilmer: Lingua Franca (Songlines)
  41. Ravi Coltrane: In Flux (Savoy Jazz)
  42. Rez Abbasi: Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds)
  43. Wayne Shorter Quartet: Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve)
  44. Mary Stallings: Remember Love (Half Note)
  45. The Vandermark 5: The Color of Memory (Atavistic, 2CD)
  46. Graham Collier: Workpoints (1968-75, Cuneiform, 2CD)
  47. Randy Sandke and the Inside Out Band: Outside In (Evening Star)
  48. Dave Holland Big Band: Overtime (Dare2/Sunnyside)
  49. Dianne Reeves: Good Night, and Good Luck (Concord)
  50. Ahmed Abdullah's Ebonic Tones: Tara's Song (TUM)
  51. Steve Shapiro and Pat Bergeson: Low Standards (Sons of Sound)

2004 List:

  1. Sonic Liberation Front: Ashé a Go-Go (High Two)
  2. Matthew Shipp: Harmony and Abyss (Thirsty Ear)
  3. The Vandermark Five: Elements of Style . . . Exercises in Surprise (Atavistic)
  4. David Murray & the Gwo-Ka Masters: Gwotet (Justin Time)
  5. Charlie Haden: Land of the Sun (Verve)
  6. Triage: American Mythology (Okka)
  7. Jewels & Binoculars: Floater (Ramboy)
  8. Zu & Spaceways Inc.: Radiale (Atavistic)
  9. Satoko Fujii Quartet: Zephyros (NatSat)
  10. Don Byron: Ivey-Divey (Blue Note)