Live and Kicking
The heart and soul of jazz is spontaneous improvisation. No other musical genre provides so much opportunity for creativity to combust--right here, right now. The cerebral discipline that goes into mastering the fundamentals of rhythm, harmony, and melody is ultimately just scaffolding for the musicians to swing and clamber upon like a jungle gym, testing their limits and trusting their instincts, performing with childlike passion.
Not coincidentally, half of my favorite eight jazz discs of 2004 are live recordings, where the players are staring at patrons instead of engineers, knowing that there are no second takes. One reason I choose to live in this town is that nearly every artist mentioned below performs onstage at the Dakota, the Artists' Quarter, or Ted Mann Auditorium. There is nothing quite like a fully realized jazz gig. But these eight records are the next best thing.
1. JESSICA WILLIAMS Live at Yoshi's
For pure flesh on ivory, Williams's touch is unmistakable, the tone subtly bold and resonant and then seamlessly silent. On ballads such as "You Say You Care," she luxuriates in sentiment without banality, her dynamics lush yet precise, the creative twists of harmony and rhythm thrilling like a gambler on a winning streak. The rhythm section of her trio is sublime. Victor Lewis's cymbal work sheathes the interplay between them like a velvet cape, the sonic textures dappled and dancing. And bassist Ray Drummond is a bear of a man with a sound to match, so enormous you only belatedly appreciate its graceful agility.
2. CHRIS POTTER QUARTET Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard
This is Potter's leap from highly esteemed sideman to foursquare tenor sax titan. Knowing that live recordings at the Vanguard are freighted with iconic importance, he challenges himself with tricky time signatures ("7.5") and rollicking, robust vehicles from the post-bop canon (Mingus's "Boogie Stop Shuffle"), delivering triumphantly torrid cadenzas and brawny ensemble exchanges that brim with gymnastic confidence.
3. BOBBY WATSON AND HORIZON Horizon Reassembled
After a hiatus of more than a decade, Horizon returns with a set of versatile, synergistic hard bop that stands with the best of Blue Note discs from the '60s. Watson's warm alto darts and shimmers; trumpeter Terell Stafford displays a more ruggedly vibrant tone on the superb horn arrangements; pianist Edward Simon contributes a distinctive Latin flair; and the rhythm section--drummer Victor Lewis again, with Essiet Essiet on bass--is both steady and colorful.
4. ROY HAYNES Fountain of Youth
On the cusp of 80 years of age, recent Downbeat Hall of Fame winner Haynes is still unearthing new ways to dice beats and fracture rhythms with a truly inimitable drumming style he dubs "hard swing." The revelation here is that unknown young sidemen--especially saxophonist Marcus Strickland--provide him more creative inspiration than the band of heavyweights from his overrated Birds of a Feather disc. From the peppy standard "Greensleeves" to the insouciant take on Irving Berlin's "Remember" to a blazing rendition of Monk's "Green Chimneys," this live recording from Birdland burns with the focus and fervor of a blowtorch.
5. DONALD HARRISON Heroes
God bless Ron Carter. The bassist's penetrating, august, in-the-moment rhythmic architecture already has Buddha in his corner. Like water, Carter's liquid tonality simultaneously seeks its own level and reveals the center of gravity in an ensemble. He goads and guides Harrison to new heights, as the alto saxophonist turns phrases that careen with verve, quietly dazzle with pointillism, and--on a version of "My Funny Valentine" that dolefully subverts the title--wistfully suspend animation. A nicely restrained Billy Cobham on drums rounds out the trio.
6. PATRICIA BARBER Live: A Fortnight in France
Like Laurie Anderson in her heyday, Barber is arch, arty, trenchantly funny, and able to make pointy-headed concepts pleasantly accessible with exaggerated phonetics, a cleverly placed double entendre, or just a slight, dramatic pause in the lyric. Her own inventive songcraft extends to strikingly reworked covers of tunes as varied as the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and the old Chris Montez nugget, "Call Me," the latter done here as a fragrant samba. There are also a couple of instrumentals to remind you that the pianist and her backing trio are also, at root, a compelling jazz ensemble.
7. DAVID MURRAY AND THE GWO-KA MASTERS Gwotet
Arguably the best of Murray's many recent global jazz experiments, the lead track alone contains a glorious gumbo of Guadeloupean percussion, Senegalese guitar, filthy ghetto funk, and Murray's pinwheeling, skronking tenor sax testimony. Elsewhere there's hambone jive, Creole love chants, blur-speed polyrhythms, and acid jazz in the throes of jungle fever. Call these tracks the bastard voodoo chillun of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time.
8. RENÉ MARIE SERENE Renegade
René Marie can scat like no one since Ella, shift tempo like no one since Betty Carter, and recontextualize material better than Cassandra Wilson (check out her haunting segue from "Dixie" to "Strange Fruit"). Renegade represents her plunge into songwriting; her personal paeans to various family members (including the children who short-circuited her career for a decade or two) and her own travails add another dimension to her artistry.
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