The first half of 2006 seemed like an especially creative and bountiful period for new jazz releases—I had trouble paring this roundup down to the following half-dozen discs. While they span the stylistic spectrum, what most have in common is unorthodox instrumentation, yielding stark contrasts in texture that provide the players with more options and room to maneuver. They're presented here in chronological order.
Paul Motian Band
Garden of Eden
ECM (released January 24)
This is as pristine and polite as any ECM recording, so why isn't it as antiseptic as freeze-dried tofu (like the latest Charles Lloyd, in other words)? Because drummer/composer/bandleader Paul Motian challenges the harmonic chops of the guys in the studio control room (not to mention the band) by gathering an ensemble of three electric guitarists, a pair of saxophonists, and a bassist, and handing them beguiling tunes that compel conversations instead of solos. The textures are gentle and the melodies autistic à la Ornette Coleman; sinuously, in no particular hurry, they create impressionistic tone poems from semicircular patterns of audio bloom and decay. The whole thing might dissipate or founder if Motian, now 75, weren't such a masterful shepherd, guiding by nuance with taps on the ride cymbal and brushes on the snare. A pair of Mingus tunes opens the disc and two other bebop songs close it. But the nine originals in the middle are the most fertile part of this Garden.
Meaning and Mystery
Green Leaf (February 1)
Trumpeter Dave Douglas is a prolific, adventurous cuss who is often too clever by half—former CP music editor Dylan Hicks described him two years ago as "the kind of guy who shows up at a Jewish wedding with a tango band and proceeds to play Björk covers." Meaning and Mystery eschews that flamboyance and showcases a marvelous quintet that, at least by Douglas's standards, courses in the jazz mainstream. The transition of Uri Caine from piano to Fender Rhodes (initiated on Douglas's Strange Liberation from 2004) continues to evolve, giving the quintet a kaleidoscopic awning, a warmer, more enveloping vibe that sets Douglas's brawny trumpet phrases in greater relief. Another surprisingly positive change is the replacement of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter with Donnie McCaslin. McCaslin's solos often churn where Potter's would have darted, further fattening the groove and enhancing the band's accessibility. This quintet is closer in spirit to Dave Holland's small ensemble, with a strong but pliable rhythm section (Clarence Penn and James Genus on drums and bass, respectively) undergirding its ability to shine on a Mingusian blues like "Elk's Club," engage in a deft horn joust on "Tim Bits," and get both spacey and funky without lapsing into rote rhythms on "Culture Wars."
Long Hidden: The Olmec Series
AUM Fidelity (March 14)
Buy this for the friend who says there's nothing new in jazz. Bassist Parker is an old cohort of Cecil Taylor's from the 1970s and founder of a variety of improvisational ensembles. Long Hidden introduces the Olmec Group, which blends raw African polyrhythms and Latin merengue: On "El Puente Seco," braying sax squawks collide with a jaunty accordion vamp. But the Olmec septet only appears on four of the eleven tracks. Four others demonstrate Parker's solo contrabass virtuosity, from the pizzicato reverence of "Balm in Gilead" to the arco majesty of "Cathedral of Light" (which variously sounds like a bass, fiddle, horn, and pipe organ) to the 14-minute live rendition of "In Case of Accident" from the 1990s. (There are also three Parker solo songs on the eight-string doson ngoni, which pale by comparison.) Parker plays bass the way Dick Butkus played linebacker for the Chicago Bears: with brutal intensity, enormous force, easily overlooked technique and scholarship, ambush-pace speed, and thrilling, infectious passion.
Verve (May 2)
Maybe Roy Hargrove needs to play with Rh Factor (his R&B, hip hop, and soul supergroup that is much less than the sum of its parts) to clear out the cobwebs or loosen him up for this ebullient, Latin-tinged hard bop. In any case, Nothing Serious rivals 1997's Habana as the best record of his once-precocious, now protean career. Many virtues are immediately apparent. Hargrove has a telepathic intimacy with his longstanding rhythm section, especially drummer Willie Jones III. Pianist Ronnie Matthews is razor-sharp in both bop and Latin idioms, and is an ace composer to boot (check out the modal dynamo "Salima's Dance"). Alto sax newcomer Justin Robinson is a name to bookmark, possessing an uncowed willingness to gambol with all his frisky energy alongside Hargrove's relentless trumpet lines. True to its title, Nothing Serious is a disc to treasure not because it pushes any creative envelopes, but because it unspools an extraordinarily consistent batch of high-quality, mostly original tunes with giddy panache.
The Coalition of the Willing
Ropeadope (May 2)
I'm sidestepping genre definitions here. Yes, some tracks on Coalition will conjure memories of Strawberry Alarm Clock and Big Country, and some jazz reviewers have sniffed that it is a rock record. But drummer Previte and guitarist Charlie Hunter both have lengthy jazz bona fides, and besides, this disc will never be played on KQ or 93X, and is far more intrepid and improvisational than so-called jazz efforts like Marcus Miller's crypto-funk or Spyrogyra's cerebral laxative. But yes, it rocks like a mother, with a slab of holy kitsch cheese on top. "The Ministry of Truth" is tsunami surf music, replete with what sounds like a Farfisa organ and an indelible, industrial-strength groove. Hunter makes like Sonny Sharrock on the blistering "Ministry of Love." "The Inner Party" opens with the drum break from Sly Stone's "Higher" and what could be a woozy but fried Hawaiian slack key guitar passage, before extending into some Allman Bros.-style slide guitar interplay. Members of bands like Sex Mob and Primus are among the personnel. Add it up and call it jazz. Or better yet, buy it and don't categorize it.
The Classical Jazz Quartet
Kind of Blue (May 16)
The year's most noteworthy new jazz label is Swizterland-based Kind of Blue, which has popped out four or five superb discs already since its April 1 launch, none better than play Rachmaninoff. As with the Previte record, it's too easy to get hung up on contextual definitions here. You don't need to be a "longhair" who likes or even knows Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto (the source material for these nine arrangements by Bob Belden), or feel compelled to compare the CJQ to the late and lamented Modern Jazz Quartet, despite their shared instrumentation (bass-drums-vibes-piano). All that Euro-classical backgrounding is rendered moot by the irresistible, elegant swing that pervades this recording, which is what you might expect from pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Lewis Nash, each of whom belongs at or near the top of the call list for musicians on his instrument. The pleasant surprise, the cherry on top, is how vibes-and-marimba player Stefon Harris (best known for his membership in Dave Holland's band) raises his game to the level of his cohorts. How can four percussive instruments attain such a gliding liquidity? How does a small, improvisational ensemble spontaneously come together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle? The music on play Rachmaninoff answers those questions with more clarity and concision than any other disc thus far this year.