Sonny Rollins, 'Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert)' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


The first larger-than-life story anybody learns about Sonny Rollins is his decision to drop out of circulation in 1959, at the height of his career, and pursue a private regimen of near-daily practice on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. This ascetic self-improvement sabbatical, which lasted the better part of three years, has been upheld as a model of discipline and integrity — so much so that there's a movement afoot to rename the bridge in his honor.

If you keep up with more contemporary Rollins lore, the second larger-than-life story that might come to mind is his experience of, and response to, the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Sonny and his wife, Lucille, had a longtime apartment in Lower Manhattan, six blocks north of the World Trade Center. When the towers came down, they found themselves in the thick of the action, debris raining down around them. A few years ago, for a profile in JazzTimes, Sonny told me about how they were waiting for an official evacuation when he picked up his horn, as was his lifelong custom, to practice. "I took a deep breath and felt that stuff down to my stomach," he recalled, describing the toxic "snow" in the air. "I said, 'Oh, wow, no practicing today.'"

Sonny and Lucille retreated to their home in the Hudson Valley, and like many of us in that precarious aftermath, wondered precisely what to do. Rollins had a concert scheduled in Boston on Sept. 15, and initially thought about canceling. At the urging of Lucille, he kept the engagement, and ended up delivering one of the earliest and most life-affirming artistic responses to that tragedy. Recalling it later in the Boston Globe, Bill Beuttler described how the concert promoter nearly broke down giving his opening remarks.

Rollins opened the concert with a songbook standard, "Without a Song," that he said he associated with a memorable performance by Paul Robeson. Its message alluded both to a general sense of speechlessness and to the life affirming power of music. "I think everybody feels this way," he mused from the stage. 

"With that," noted Beuttler , "Rollins and his band — nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone, Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, Perry Wilson on drums, and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion — began a buoyant run through the tune that set the tone for all to follow."

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I remember hearing about this performance through word-of-mouth, because the healing that Rollins delivered in that moment was palpable: as a New Yorker in Boston, bridging two cities bonded by tragedy; as a witness to the destruction outside his door; as a spiritual conduit and an embodiment of reassurance, relaying a conviction that life can and will go on.

All of this context surges just beneath the surface of Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert), an album released on Fantasy in 2005. There's a raw emotional power to this concert recording, inextricable from its historical context but also fully sublimated in the music. Rollins is searching here, for connection and for a foothold, and that feeling is shared by many in the audience. You can hear it throughout the five full tracks on the album — and on three more later included on Road Shows Vol. 4: Holding the Stage.

Along with the title track, I hear a particular resonance in another song originally published in 1929: the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein ballad "Why Was I Born?" An existential cry with lyrics rooted in romantic desolation, it accrues another layer of meaning in these circumstances. Rollins is, famously, one of those improvisers who keeps lyrics clear in mind as he plays a song. He must have given some special consideration to this passage: 

Why was I born?
Why am I living?
What do I get?
What am I giving?

In his onstage introduction to the members of his band, included on the album, Rollins strikes a note of encouragement in the form of an exhortation: ''We must remember that music is one of the beautiful things of life, so we have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don't know. But we have to try something these days, right?"

Purchase Without a Song on Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Pat Metheny Group, 'The Way Up' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


As I write this, guitarist and composer Pat Metheny is in his mid-60s. Earlier this year he was honored as an NEA Jazz Master, racking up another accolade to put on the shelf next to his 20 Grammy Awards. It doesn’t feel strange to cite Metheny as one of our emergent jazz elders, though it might have seemed a little less obvious an outcome, to some, at an earlier point in his career. 

Metheny plays a subtle but important role in Playing Changes. He’s a prominent figure in a chapter devoted to jazz education, because he was present at a crucial moment in the development of our modern pedagogical apparatus. He’s also a testimonial witness at times, notably in a chapter about Brad Mehldau, with whom he toured just over a decade ago. More implicit is the idea that Metheny’s aesthetic signature, which encompasses everything from post-bop to rock to Brazilian pop to minimalism, has resonated with generations of composer-improvisers under the broad and ever-shifting canopy of jazz.

For an impressively long time, that influence flowed through the prism of the Pat Metheny Group, his spectacular flagship with Lyle Mays on keyboards and Steve Rodby on bass, along with assorted other collaborators. The sound and sweep of this band has been a powerful force on the scene over the last 40 years; it’s impossible to imagine the Brian Blade Fellowship without it, to name one of many examples.

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Because the 129 Essential Albums list begins with the year 2000, there are only two Pat Metheny Group releases that make the eligibility cutoff: Speaking of Now (2002) and The Way Up (2005). A whole bunch of other albums could have appeared instead. I love Metheny's trio work with Larry Grenadier and Bill Stewart, and harbor great affection for both his Orchestrion project and the various iterations of his Unity Band.

But it felt clear to me that The Way Up would be my choice, partly as a specific acknowledgment of the Pat Metheny Group and partly because the album, a nearly 70-minute suite, is so monumental an achievement. Reviewing it in JazzTimesThomas Conrad observed the album’s radical scaling-up of formal ambition; the PMG, he wrote, “has moved to a new level, rather like a short story writer who suddenly publishes a major epic novel.” 

I’m in agreement with this assessment, and will add that the personnel on the album bring a fantastic intensity of focus to the effort. Along with Metheny, Mays and Rodby, the ensemble here features Antonio Sánchez on drums, Cuong Vu on trumpet and Grégoire Maret on harmonica. 

To a man, every one of these musicians works heroically to disappear into the matrix of Metheny’s writing, especially on the suite’s half-hour-long overture, “Part One.” Melodic motifs emerge, flutter seductively for a moment and then whoosh away, only to recur much later in the going. Almost any one of these motifs could be the heart of a discrete, standalone song, but that isn’t Metheny’s intention here. He’s specifically thinking in sprawling terms, and you could no more extract one strand of the composition than you could isolate a single thread in a tapestry.

Conrad put it well in his review, so I’ll give him the last word here: 

This long work is also remarkably successful in sustaining narrative interest, through multiplicities of subplots and myriad shifts of mood and tempo and texture. Passages of reflective lyricism escalate to keening crescendos, then the music falls away, to reconfigure itself and build again. This is music that demands many listenings.

I’ve given this music many listenings since its release 13 years ago. Revisiting it over the last week for the first time in a while, I’d say it holds up, and then some. 

Purchase The Way Up digitally at Nonesuch Records, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Paul Motian / Bill Frisell / Joe Lovano, 'I Have the Room Above Her' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Paul Motian has already surfaced twice in the 129 Essential Albums List, and he'll turn up again. This is the album that I really consider as his, featuring one of the greatest working bands I've had the privilege to experience in a room. 

For the most part, that room was the Village Vanguard, where Motian, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell were a beloved fixture for something like 30 years. After Motian decided to stop touring, around 2003, he became even more of a Vanguard staple, almost a mascot. And the Motian-Frisell-Lovano trio was his flagship group, the one that best crystallized his gift for melodic abstraction and plasticized rhythm. 

I must have seen the trio at the Vanguard a dozen times over the years. One set that stands out happened in 2004, as the Bush-era Republican National Convention was in town — with Professor Irwin Corey, a favorite of the Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, serving as a politically subversive intermission act. Reviewing that gig for the Village Voice, I wrote: 

Lovano’s tenor saxophone cooed and cried on “Don’t Explain,” nudged along by soft Frisell guitar arpeggios. They played in chorus at the start and finish of Motian’s compositions, which have the pliant, patient certainty of folk songs. In between were innumerable fine details: Frisell’s spontaneous architecture of sampled zips and pings, the sizzle of rivets on Motian’s cymbal at a pregnant pause.

The following spring, ECM released I Have the Room Above Her, a sublime album that capitalizes on the individual strengths of each musician, and the indefinable strength they managed as a unit.   This album stands, for me, as one of the ensemble's great statements. I wrote about it for JazzTimes, and I'm enclosing the full review below; my thoughts on the matter haven't changed much, except for the fact that I am all the more convinced of its timeless appeal.


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It’s been 20 years since drummer Paul Motian, guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano recorded It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago, the ECM album that kicked off their trio collaboration. In the interim, the ensemble has worked together more or less steadily: playing to packed Village Vanguard crowds, touring Europe and recording a couple of gems for Winter & Winter/JMT. Still, this return to ECM feels like a major milestone as well as a reprisal.

The reason, quite simply, is the music. Motian and his younger cohorts have mastered the art of an avant-gardism that’s abstract but never shapeless, and thoroughly steeped in melodic yearning. Lovano’s tenor is alternately pleading, plaintive or exalting; Frisell employs his guitar as lead voice, harmonic glue and atmospheric scrim. As for their leader, Motian’s minimalist percussion is as subtle and steady as a heartbeat, even when it more readily suggests a cardboard box tumbling down the stairs.

Motian composed nearly all of the songs here; the exceptions are the title track (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat) and the closing “Dreamland” (by Thelonious Monk, Motian’s lodestar and, briefly, his boss). Not surprisingly, the entire program hews to the drummer’s guiding aesthetic, which might best be described as an exaltation of the subconscious. So we get what sounds obliquely like a border folk song (“Odd Man Out”), a playground chant (“The Bag Man”) and a high-wire balancing act (“Dance”). The A section of “One in Three” is effectively a bedtime lullaby, with Motian’s cymbals rusting the branches outside; the B section intrudes like a disquieting dream. In all the tunes, there are deceptively simple forms, a blend of wistfulness and whimsy and a sense of wonder at the world. Start to finish, this is music for the soul.

Purchase I Have the Room Above Her at ECM Records, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Guillermo Klein, 'Una Nave' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Guillermo Klein is an Argentine pianist and composer who spent a good portion of the late 1990s headquartered at Smalls, the unassuming basement jazz club in Greenwich Village. There he held court with a cohort of other twentysomething improvisers who came to see him as a visionary.

By the mid-2000s, Klein was living in Barcelona. As Ben Ratliff put it in a profile for The New York Times, it was a disorienting feeling for New Yorkers to sense that something special had slipped away: "We have heard dispatches from Mr. Klein — three fascinating records — but have had to live with the fact that his evolution was taking place somewhere else."

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One of those fascinating records was Una Nave, released on Sunnyside in 2005. It features musicians from Klein's circle in Buenos Aires, like drummer Daniel “Pipi” Piazzolla (yes, that line of Piazzollas) and the trumpeters Juan Cruz De Urquiza and Richard Nant. The writing on the album is uniformly strong, and often idiosyncratically so. A track called "La Ultima" includes a riveting staccato trumpet duel, scored in a way that suggests medieval hocketing, on steroids.

At the same time, Klein is a composer of songs, full stop. A year or so ago I interviewed Puerto Rican alto saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón, a Klein associate, who made this very point:

A lot of the music he writes, it’s basically songs. He has lyrics to a lot of his music, and sometimes he will write lyrics for a bunch of tunes and you will never hear the lyrics. I was thinking: Why is he not singing these songs? But then I came to understand that even without the lyrics, you could kind of hear the vocal quality, that lyrical quality to the pieces, which made them so much richer.

Zenón's observation rings true of my own experience of Klein's music. When I reviewed Klein's album Filtros for the Times in 2008, I wrote something that applies equally to Una Nave: 

In the realm of harmony Mr. Klein can be both progressive and willfully simple, often stripping down to the perfect intervals that evoke ancient or ceremonial music. His melodies tend to be convoluted but singable; he sings a few himself. The net effect is a sort of folkloric futurism, indebted to big band jazz orchestration but generally free of its standard conventions. 

This is especially clear on a tune called "Flores," which showcases Klein's untrained but appealing singing voice, along with a shrewd set of strategies for arranging his horns.

Buy Una Nave at Sunnyside, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Amina Figarova, 'September Suite' (2005)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Amina Figarova was born in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, in 1964. She trained there to become a classical pianist, and later enrolled in a conservatory in Rotterdam, where she developed an interest in jazz.

She happened to be playing the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City the week of September 11, 2001. She was asleep in a Brooklyn apartment as two planes struck the World Trade Center, and eventually emerged to discover survivors who had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, shellshocked and covered in debris.

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Figarova went back to Rotterdam and processed her experience, which eventually bloomed into September Suite. A sextet album steeped in sadness, reflection and the determination to transcend, it's a milestone in her career as well as a standout in the subcategory of art made in the shadow of 9/11. (My personal canon in that vein would include Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers and Don DeLillo's Falling Man.)

One remarkable thing about September Suite is the emotional resonance of the music, which feels both rooted in this particular tragedy and somehow broader. Figarova structured the album with an implicit parallel to the stages of grief, so that its experience is universal to the human experience. She used musicians not especially known to an American audience, like saxophonist Kurt Van Herck, drummer Chris Strik, and her husband, flutist Bart Platteau. 

Like anyone who considered him or herself a New Yorker on that fateful day, I have a deep personal recollection of the mood that engulfed the city for weeks and months afterward. That's one thing I admire about Figarova's approach: she devotes far less time to the destruction itself than she does to its reverberations. One track bears the title "Numb," while another is called "Trying to Focus." (She gets a bit more on-the-nose with "Denial" and "Rage.") 

And "Emptyness" is a ballad that suggests her admiration for the compositional language of Wayne Shorter, from around the year of her birth. But the song also communicates a tricky balance of solitude and fortitude — a sense that things can hardly get worse, which means of course that they can only get better.

Buy September Suite on Amazon, or stream it on Spotify.

Mulgrew Miller, 'Live at Yoshi's, Vol. 1' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Mulgrew Miller died five years ago, at a mere 57. Losing him was a shock, in no small part because he cut the figure of a load-bearing pillar in the modern mainstream. “His balanced but assertive style was a model of fluency, lucidity and bounce,” as I noted in a NY Times obituary, “and it influenced more than a generation of younger pianists.”

My first exposure to Miller was via the Tony Williams Quintet of the late 1980s and early ‘90s — a terrific post-bop band that featured a front line of Wallace Roney on trumpet and Bill Pierce on saxophones. It took me a little while to find my way to Miller’s own discography, notably the 1987 album Wingspan, which was so strong a statement that he later formed a working band by the same name.

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Live at Yoshi’s Vol. 1 belongs to a series of live albums by Miller’s early-to-mid 2000s trio, with Derrick Hodge on bass and Karriem Riggins on drums. (There’s a Vol. 2, of course; there are also two volumes of Live at the Kennedy Center, from a couple years prior, with Rodney Green in place of Riggins.) All of these albums suggest a Platonic ideal for the modern piano trio, in an exalted lineage that runs through precursors including McCoy Tyner andBill Evans, not to mention Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons and Ahmad Jamal.

As a side note, Miller was monumentally important to Robert Glasper, who now stands are the most prominent of his sworn disciples. It’s hardly a coincidence that Glasper’s closest musical affiliation has been with Hodge — nor that he recently reinforced his bond with Riggins. The Robert Glasper Trio, especially on its first couple of albums, reflected the influence of Miller more than any other single source. (Glasper’s 2007 album In My Element even includes an original title “One For ‘Grew.”)

But it would be irresponsible to reduce Miller’s contribution to the degree to which he inspired his admirers. His musicianship was a frank but wondrous thing, from the quality of his touch to the color of his harmonic voicings. Here is his version of “The Organ Grinder” — a composition by trumpeter Woody Shaw, with whom he toured and recorded for a good stretch in the ‘80s. Soulful and swinging, with a profound sense of forward pull, it’s a fine embodiment of Miller’s greatness — and a bittersweet reminder of what we lost. 

Buy Live at Yoshi’s, Vol. 1 at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Brad Mehldau Trio, 'Anything Goes' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Brad Mehldau occupies an important place in the ecosystem ofPlaying Changes— not just as one of the most influential and accomplished pianists of his generation, but also as a bridge from one jazz era to the next. In the book I write about Mehldau’s emergence as part of an articulate young cohort that also included Joshua Redman, in whose band he made his first major impression.

“Me and Josh and a lot of players of our specific little generation were lucky,” Mehldau told me in 2005, “because we just caught the tail end of the Young Lions thing. And we had a lot of opportunities that somebody who’s 22 today just doesn’t have.” That notion of inhabiting a place in time — and making sense of the specific matrix of opportunities and challenges that come with it — forms a big part of that chapter in which Mehldau appears. 

Mehldau was at an interesting crossroads when we first spoke in 2005, for a cover story in JazzTimesHis highly praised trio, with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jorge Rossy on drums, was a known entity, no longer an upstart. When talking about the evolution of the band, Mehldau employed a metaphor that more or less called Auguste Rodin to mind: 

There were some developmental changes in my piano playing style with the trio that happened pretty fast. And then it slowed down a little. The last few years in general have been smaller changes. It’s like making a statue: At first, you’re chipping away big chunks. And then you’re starting to get the shape of a body or whatever you’re making. And then it becomes about chiseling something to shape an identity that’s already there-sort of doing the fine-tuning work-which in a way is harder.
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In the JazzTimes piece, I noted that Anything Goes, the trio’s seventh or eighth album for Warner Bros. (depending on your math), “is proof that the chiseling has been effective; it may be the group’s finest work yet.” What distinguishes the album is a feeling of full bloom, a maturity of expression across the board. “The music is not so in-your-face anymore,” Grenadier said at the time. “It doesn’t have to prove its point or whatever. It’s kind of mellowed, in the best sense of that word. We can interpret any song in its own way, and it’s what it is, and it’s unique to us. It’s not trying to get to a place; it just is.”

“Get Happy,” which opens the album, walks an almost proprietary line between effervescence and sublimated sadness. Mehldau voices the chords in the melody with a trace of melancholy, even as the 7/8-meter vamp in his arrangement insists on a sunny clime. This is all characteristic of the first Mehldau trio; so too is the drumming on this track, which floats in one moment and almost rumbles the next. There’s also something distinctive that Mehldau does just before the three-minute mark, taking a set of elaborative solo piano choruses that expand on the theme without in any way abandoning its form. 

During my reporting for that JazzTimes story, I saw a fascinating one-off gig with Mehldau, Grenadier, drummer Jeff Ballard and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. Appearing for a week at the Village Vanguard, this ensemble had the feeling of a focused experiment, which turned out to be the case. Turner, Ballard and Grenadier had their own fully formed identity as the collective trio Fly. And Mehldau had become a fan. Not long after this, he decided to change up his own trio, rotating Ballard in for Rossy. So Anything Goes was, in effect, the last album released by the first Brad Mehldau Trio during its time. (A pair of fine “posthumous” studio albums, House on Hill and Day is Done, appeared in 2005.) 

Mehldau has only continued refining, and reframing, over the last dozen years. I could easily have selected a later album of his for the 129 Essential Albums list; the trio effort he released this year, Seymour Reads the Constitution, is a pretty serious contender. But I wanted to acknowledge the significance of Mehldau’s first trio, with which he made so many personal advances, and left so undeniable an influence. The album’s title, Anything Goes, also carries some meaning, as one of a few lessons that Mehldau worked out in public, with many of us watching and listening closely.

Buy Anything Goes at Brad Mehldau's website, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Medeski Martin & Wood, 'End of the World Party (Just in Case)' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


So here's an album title that hasn't lost its bite, huh? End of the World Party (Just in Case) was the fifth Blue Note album by Medeski Martin & Wood, which had also released material on Gramavision and elsewhere. What the album signaled, along with a tongue-in-cheek alarum about our state of affairs, was an evolution in the band's balancing act. 

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MMW — John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums, Chris Wood on bass — had famously come together as an avant-garde acoustic proposition, only gradually finding its purpose as the thinking person's jam band. There'd even been a return to those acoustic roots on the live album Tonic, recorded in 1999 at the Lower East Side haunt of the same name. A sizable portion of the MMW fan base celebrated this side of the band's sound, alongside the more groove-centric, organ-forward stuff. What not everybody realized, certainly not on the jazz side of the fence, was that the members of the band truly drew no distinctions between these means and modes.

But End of the World Party (Just in Case) does belong more squarely to one side than the other. And a lot of that has to do with its design. For this album, MMW enlisted John King as producer. As a member of the Dust Brothers, he'd helped create the distinctive, allusive sound of Paul's Boutique, by the Beastie Boys, and Odelay, by Beck. And you can clearly hear his influence on the album, notably in the first few tracks, which inhabit an air of foreboding even as they shift almost constantly from one set of textures to the next.

See for instance "Reflector," one of several tracks to feature a guest turn by guitarist Marc Ribot. It begins with twangy guitar and chattering clavinet, but soon also incorporates Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano and what sounds to me like another set of analog synths. The thrust of Martin's beat doesn't change all that much, but the context around it does, almost constantly: I hear a series of threaded arguments, presented in sequence, à la the Dust Brothers' signature approach. Listen to the section that begins with a sampled vocal, just before the three-minute mark. When Medeski adds a chiming piano part, it always reminds me of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. But it's here and gone in a few seconds; by 3:30, he's playing a crooked montuno, which provides the track with its fade-out.

Other tracks on the album inhabit a more typically organic, go-where-the-groove-leads vibe. They sound more temperamentally upbeat, too. So Medeski Martin & Wood were hardly articulating their new direction with End of the World Party; they were just adding another set of possibilities, and showing that they could go this route if they wanted to. Just in case.

Buy End of the World Party (Just in Case) at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Tony Malaby, 'Adobe' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Tony Malaby has been an essential tenor saxophonist of this century: a dauntless explorer with no qualms about direct emotional address. His versatility, along with that rarer expressive quality, made him a go-to sideman in the 2000s — with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, among others — as well as a reliable catharsis engine on the low-rent New York City club circuit.

Malaby has expanded his rep and his purview since, leading excellent bands like Paloma Recio, whose album Incantations I reviewed in the NY Times a couple of years ago. You may have heard him with pianist Kris Davis, or in Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass, or with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Or maybe you haven't heard him yet at all — in which case, have I got an album for you.

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Adobe came out in 2004, and while Malaby had been releasing albums for a few years at that point, it was rightly understood as pivotal. I had forgotten about this, but I filed a capsule review for the Philadelphia City Paper at the time, which still captures my feeling:

Primarily known as a first-rate free improviser, Malaby has an introspective side that often gets underplayed. But this release firmly establishes the 40-year-old tenor and soprano saxophonist as a subtle melodist and mood-setter. His horn can be elegiac, as on "Dorotea la Cautiva," or quizzical, as on the winding "Cosas." What never falters is the freshness of his solo excursions. For this, he shares equal credit with his distinguished company. Drummer Paul Motian is jazz's sage of small gestures, capable of painting a canvas with one tap of a cymbal. And bassist Drew Gress reinforces his adept solo and support skills. Together this trio has made an attractively modest statement that should win Malaby converts from beyond his experimental base. 

Motian's role is worth expanding on for a moment. He was in his early 70s when he played on this recording, and already a sought-after elder on the scene. Obviously he had already established a genuine rapport with Malaby. But this album is representative of a larger shift, which I discuss in Playing Changes: as musicians like Motian began to age into a phase of eminence, their influence subtly transformed the character of the music at ground level. Listen to the way that his beat, with its patented sort of halting propulsion, informs "Cosas," which is a contrafact of the ageless standard "All the Things You Are." This track could have felt like a throwback gesture. Not with Motian in the mix.

Buy Adobe at Sunnyside Records, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Frank Kimbrough, 'Lullabluebye' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Frank Kimbrough has been a brilliant and often-overlooked pianist on the scene for more than 30 years. His brilliance is right there in the music, no great mystery. His overlooked-ness is a bit more puzzling, but also less of an issue now than it was earlier in his career. 

You may know Kimbrough as the longstanding pianist in the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of the most widely acclaimed ensembles of our age. (Schneider, a composer and arranger of peerless skill, will be recognized as a 2019 NEA Jazz Master — an honor typically bestowed on artists a decade or two further along.) If you were paying close attention in the 1990s, you would also have known Kimbrough as a founder of the Jazz Composers Collective and one of its flagship bands, the Herbie Nichols Project. 

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For his 2004 album Lullabluebye, Kimbrough enlisted two fellow members of the JCC, bassist Ben Allison and drummer Matt Wilson. It's a program of evocative originals, and to my ear a creative breakthrough for Kimbrough as an artist and bandleader. He has released several excellent albums since then, including a gem of a solo piano recital titled Air. But I picked Lullabluebye because of its pivotal quality — the way in which it encapsulates a state of elegant imperfection that Kimbrough sees as critical.

"It’s like the grain of sand that makes the pearl," he told me in 2004, for a profile in JazzTimes. "Some people aren’t looking for pearls; they’re just looking to get it over with. I like to look for pearls. And it takes that grain of sand sometimes." 

In the piece, I extended and applied that thought to the album at hand:

Lullabluebye includes more than a few instances of this principle in action. “Whirl” is a free-bop ditty with a fast-flurrying line; during the solo section, the trio performs an interpretive dance, phasing in and out of various tempos. “Ode” finds Kimbrough gently abstracting a handsome theme. And “Ghost Dance” shimmers with quietude, its plaintive dissonance and patient cadence combining for an appropriately haunting effect. There are more grounded moments, too-like a lackadaisically bluesy title track, and a lilting bossa nova rendition of John Barry’s theme from the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Whatever the material, the album’s common element is an aura of deep mystique-a trait Kimbrough shares with the likes of Andrew Hill, Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley. Like those personal heroes, he’s a nonidiomatic player, fiercely resistant to quotes or handy turns of phrase.

Here, in a fine illustration of that principle, is "Whirl."

Purchase Lullabluebye at Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music.

Don Byron, 'Ivey-Divey' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


One subject that comes in for close examination in Playing Changes is the rise of jazz historicism and, in particular, jazz repertory. The act of revisiting a body of work, or recreating the sound of a band, became so commonplace as to seem like the center of the action. To be a jazz musician was, in the popular view, to be an archivist, a nostalgist, a historical reenactor.

But there was also a renegade strain of jazz repertory, one that saw the past less as a monument than as a playground. Enter clarinetist Don Byron, whose emergence on the 1990s Downtown Scene was a significant event. The first Byron I ever heard — and I have no idea why this crossed my path, as a high school sophomore in Honolulu — was a cassette copy of Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, his unruly tribute to a klezmer clarinet hero and Borscht-style comedy king. Later there came Bug Music, a celebration of John Kirby and Raymond Scott. 

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So there was precedent in Byron's career for an album like Ivey-Divey, which he patterned after a 1946 album titled The Lester Young Trio, with Young on tenor saxophone, Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. Byron had come to this album as a consequence of his tenor saxophone studies, finding an irresistible pull not only in Young's suave playing but also in the chemistry of the trio. When I spoke with Byron about Ivey-Divey for a feature in JazzTimes, he had some insightful things to say about the original album, and the ways in which it still resonated on a modern frequency for him. Here's a quote-heavy passage from the piece:

“You don’t really notice that there’s no bass there,” Byron says. “Which means that everybody is really contributing to the feeling of the form of the song. And I think when you’re missing something like bass, it just makes everybody have to work harder. But there’s also something really orchestral about that record. Some of the duet stuff between Buddy Rich and Nat ‘King’ Cole really shows an orchestral way of thinking. It’s not about playing jazz where there’s a racket that goes on all the time, and you just do your role in the racket. It’s people really thinking about the sounds that they’re making, in a way that’s different than if there were more people around, or if they were in a different situation. The communication, something about it….” He pauses for a moment. “You know, for me, the way ‘avant-garde’ people play and the way straightahead people play aren’t really two different things. On that record, you see both things coming together. Because some of what they’re playing, it’s not like these are normal voicings or normal things to play; they’re really playing into the sound.”

Perhaps I've buried the lede here. Byron took these ideas and brought them to a pair of musicians from the generations just ahead and just behind him. Inhabiting but transcending the Buddy Rich role was Jack DeJohnette. Answering the bass-less charge of pianism was Jason Moran. Their way of addressing a standard like "I Want to Be Happy" or "I Cover the Waterfront" is respectful but unbound by the usual fealties of style. Their exuberance suggests the thrill of the open road.

And Byron, who insisted to me that Ivey-Divey was "not a repertory record," included some original compositions inspired by his own personnel. One of these is "Abie the Fishman," titled after a Marx Brothers routine. The contour of the tune is très Byron, and the way that Moran and DeJohnette attack it feels utterly contemporary, a reminder of the essential fact at the heart of both Young's trio and this one.

Ivey-Divey can be purchased from Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.

Geri Allen, 'The Life of a Song' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


When Geri Allen died in 2017, shockingly, at the age of 60, many in the jazz community felt as if the wind had been knocked out of them. I knew Geri a little: I interviewed her on multiple occasions, and served with her on a judges panel some years back. She was a wonderful person as well as an exceptional artist. And what really devastated me, as a critic and a fan, was the conviction that she still had so much to give. We needed Geri Allen, and had a lot more to look forward to. I fully counted on having her around as one of our wise elders, a good 20 years from now.

The silver lining in all of this is that we had her for as long as we did. Geri stood for so many things, and reconciled them so completely in her music. She traveled in the orbit of the Young Lions, and in the early stirrings of M-BASE. She was an outspoken advocate for precursors like Mary Lou Williams and Erroll Garner. She supported younger talent like Esperanza Spading. Her scope was always wide, and her antennae always receptive and open. 

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The Life of a Song, released in 2004 on Telarc, is a fine encapsulation of what Geri Allen was pursuing in the first decade of this century. The album features her with an absolute gem of a trio, with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. These were, in a tangible sense, musicians with more experience than she had at the time. But they had no problem deferring to her leadership, because they understood how clearly she had articulated a direction.

The album includes smart new arrangements of standards, like "Lush Life" and "Soul Eyes." But the reason to come to The Life of a Song has to do with Allen's originals, which chart a path from the postbop mainstream to a more contemporary set of coordinates. The opening track, "LWB's House (The Remix)," sets the bar with a relaxed and loping groove (DeJohnette's matchless specialty) and a melody full of spiky intervallic intrigue. Every member of the trio brings an imposing A game.

The Life of a Song can be purchased at Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.

Ahmad Jamal, 'In Search of Momentum' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Ahmad Jamal might seem, at first glance, like an odd figure to celebrate when talking about jazz in our time. He began releasing albums as a leader in the early 1950s, and those recordings — none more celebrated than At the Pershing: But Not For Me, from '58 — embody an epitome of midcentury American cool. Miles Davis instructed his pianists, notably Red Garland, to emulate Jamal. His elegant use of space in the music was a major influence in the postwar era.

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You probably know all of that already. But it's possible that you have overlooked the extent to which Jamal remained a vital force into the 2000s and beyond. Just last year he released a concert album, Marseille, that seemed to defy time and all logic. He turns 88 this summer, and shows few signs of slowing down.

In Search of Momentum, released in 2003, was the first great album Jamal released in this century. I do mean "great," in that it's a glorious illustration of Jamal's late style, in a trio that features James Cammack on bass and the incomparable Idris Muhammad on drums. (Cammack is still a member of Jamal's crew; Muhammad died in 2014.) 

Ben Ratliff was reviewing another Jamal album from this period when he wrote the following, worth citing here nonetheless: "Jamal likes to play gentle, perfumed melodies as single notes in the high register of the keyboard. But then he balances them with darker, authoritative ringing tones from the lower end; he drawls and withdraws almost to the point of disappearing, then returns like a bulldozer, playing in a jacked-up, dislocating style. His music can be pushy and imperious, and he doesn't parse down to a recognizable aesthetic profile."

You'll get a sense of that in this version of "Where Are You," a songbook standard. Jamal arranges the tune in a jaunty two-step, but his moves from moment to moment are unpredictable; he sounds very much like a master improviser who knows his lane, but refuses to succumb to any form of complacency. 

Purchase In Search of Momentum at Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Dave Holland Quintet, 'Extended Play: Live at Birdland' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Bassist Dave Holland came of age, more or less, in the loose-fitting Miles Davis bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, so he has long understood Miles’ modus operandi as a bandleader: corral the finest, most open-minded musicians into a cohesive unit and let the juices flow. Listening to the music from that franchise, you could hear the distinctive imprint of Wayne Shorter or John McLaughlin or Keith Jarrett, but you always knew, unequivocally, that what you were getting was Miles.

The same has held true with Holland’s own bands — none more clearly than the dynamic band he led from the late '90s into the 2000s. The Dave Holland Quintet, as it was simply known, featured Chris Potter on saxophones, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and either Billy Kilson or Nate Smith on drums. In a certain sense it recalled earlier Holland ensembles, like a late-'80s quintet that included saxophonist Steve Coleman. 

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But the turn-of-the-century quintet had its own stride and metabolism, and for a handful of years it loomed as one of the most reliable thrill rides in small-group jazz. The instrumentation allowed Holland to draw on all of his trademarks as a composer-bandleader: sinewy athleticism, jostling counterpoint, high contrast in color and timbre. Eubanks and Potter contributed tunes as well, mostly hewing to this style. And while the band released several studio albums worth hearing, beginning in 1998 with Points of View, I don't think there's a substitute for how it sounded on the bandstand. Which means, almost by definition, that the double album Live at Birdland is the essential document, a chronicle of fierce ignition and extravagant intuition. 

Among other things, the album reveals just how much trust Holland places in his bandmates. Listen here to "Prime Directive," which was the title track for a previous studio release. It's the sort of airtight, aerodynamic postbop composition that makes you think of good industrial design. But in this live version, it also features a long stretch where the rhythm section drops out, leaving Potter and Eubanks to improvise in tandem, with all the intricate dialogic entanglement of an argument in a Robert Altman film. Later there comes an excellent Nelson solo, and a groove-centric drum display by Kilson. As the kids say, "So killin', man."

Purchase Extended Play: Live at Birdland at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Keith Jarrett / Gary Peacock / Jack DeJohnette, 'Always Let Me Go: Live in Tokyo' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Keith Jarrett looms large in any discussion of jazz over the last 45 years. To track his early movements — from the peace-and-love rhapsodies of the Charles Lloyd Quartet to the post-Woodstock fire of Miles Davis to the inward-seeking clarity of Facing You — is to present a complicated portrait of a culture in transition.

Then of course, there's The Köln Concert, which established a popular framework for the existential solo piano expedition. I've seen a handful of Jarrett concerts that inhabit a similar plane, including the one that yielded The Carnegie Hall Concert, about a dozen years ago.

When I went about the difficult task of cherry-picking one Jarrett album from the 2000s on, I briefly considered a solo effort. I also thought about Jasmine, his beautifully muted set of duos with bassist Charlie Haden. But it felt more important to acknowledge the momentous tenure of his trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

If you know this group at all, you probably know it as the Standards Trio — and for most of its 30-year reign, that was an accurate description. Jarrett and his crew illuminated songbook ballads, bebop warhorses and other pieces from the common repertory. If you were to pick an emblematic album, you'd maybe go with Whisper Not or My Foolish Heart or, for an absorbing longitudinal study, the 6-CD boxed set recorded at the Blue Note in 1994.

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But I decided to tack in another direction, choosing Always Let Me Go, recorded in Tokyo in 2001, and released as a double album the following year. Jarrett had already delivered a curveball with Inside Out, the first album of completely improvised material by the trio in an eon. This follow-up carries that practice to its logical next step — proving not only that the language of the band went far deeper than its songbook, but also that improvisers of this caliber can create formal coherence out of true spontaneous interplay.

In DownBeat, Thomas Conrad gave the album five stars, a rating typically reserved for a masterpiece. Reviewing for JazzTimes, Mike Quinn acknowledged that "out" was the prevailing ethos of the set. "But what is most captivating about this virtuosic tour de force," he added, "is the way this trio can, on a dime, turn outside in, pulling a melody and structure from thin air, usually at just the right moment, bringing everything back to earth with a bit of bluesy funk, a bit of wistful romanticism, a slice of bop or swing."

Earlier this year, ECM released After the Fall, a far more swinging affair recorded a few years earlier, in 1998. Because the Standards Trio disbanded several years ago, this release served as a bittersweet postscript as well as a time capsule; I wrote about it here. What's remarkable about the Standards Trio is that it could contain so many realms without the slightest hint of strain. Here, from Always Let Me Go, is "Tsunami," which illustrates the point.

Purchase Always Let Me Go on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Fred Hersch Trio, 'Live at the Village Vanguard' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Fred Hersch already had a lot of mileage in his rearview when he recorded Live at the Village Vanguard, in the spring of 2002. An acutely intelligent pianist who hit the ground running in the '70s, he put in serious apprenticeship hours with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and others. But a turn-of-the-century run of gleaming songbook albums (on Nonesuch) had begun to make him feel pigeonholed. He came to the Vanguard ready to throw down.

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The gig introduced a terrific new trio, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. Two weeks later, I interviewed Hersch at his loft in SoHo for a profile in JazzTimes. "I felt like: ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” he told me. “Kind of a no-muss, no-fuss, just capture what we do. A record that’s about the playing — but also hopefully, if it all comes out right, when you put it on you really feel like you’re there. You should feel like you’re sitting two tables back, just digging the band. I love that.”

Hersch had another album in the works when we spoke: Leaves of Grass, a brilliantly realized suite inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with vocals by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Last fall I found myself back in the SoHo loft interviewing Hersch about this very suite, for an episode of Jazz Night in America. We also talked about ood Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, the memoir that Hersch had just published, to deserving acclaim.

But back to Live at the Village Vanguard. I could just as easily selected a more recent album by Hersch — say, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, which chronicles his current trio, featuring John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. (The same trio released another fabulous effort, Live in Europe, this year.) For that matter, I could have chosen Leaves of Grass

One reason I didn't: I see the 2003 Vanguard album as pivotal, and will confess to a certain sentimental attachment. There are no fewer than six Hersch originals on the album, and this was noteworthy at the time: he was really just beginning to come into his own in that respect. Listen to "Endless Stars," a flowing ballad in straight-eighth time, and you hear the full measure of Hersch's gift for melodic construction, and for a thematic development that feels effortless. 

Besides which, this is a song, in the fullest sense. In fact, it was only a year later that Norma Winstone released a version with her lyrics, calling it simply "Stars." (Hersch is her partner throughout the album, called Songs & Lullabies.) I'm including that here, too.

 

Purchase Live at the Village Vanguard at Amazon or Discogs.

Jane Ira Bloom, 'Chasing Paint: Jane Ira Bloom Meets Jackson Pollock' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Jane Ira Bloom is a soprano saxophonist whose track record of excellence goes back more than 40 years. She isn't a doubler, a tenor player who also plays the straight horn; the soprano is her chosen instrument, and she has remained faithful to its sonic properties.

Her sound on the horn is round and clear, and she takes every advantage of the possibilities its form presents. She likes to incorporate a sort of Doppler effect into her improvising; you can hear her do this at times on the title track to Chasing Paint, below. It also factored into her trio album Early Americans, which earned her (and engineer Jim Anderson) the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.

Bloom has also been at the forefront of contemporary improvisers engaging with a theme. Her most recent album is Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson; she has done commissioned work for NASA. Chasing Paint is a sterling example of her instinct for interdisciplinary connection; Bloom drew inspiration both from the formal properties of Jackson Pollock's canvases and the kinetic nature of his process. She urged her band to think as if they were painting with sound, and everyone seemed to grasp the idea. (In the track below, pay special attention to Fred Hersch, especially in the free-tempo elaboration from around 1:45 through the solo that begins at 3:10.)

I wanted to tap into how it felt to hear this music fresh, and stumbled across my review of the album in JazzTimes, from July 2003. 

Jane Ira Bloom, Chasing Paint

Among the many misperceptions about abstract expressionist icon Jackson Pollock is the assumption that his work is an undisciplined expression of id. It’s probably true that Pollock’s painterly oeuvre, imbued with dramatic movement, owes a debt to the power of catharsis. But to stop there is to ignore its serious compositional features and the rigors that led to its inception.

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It’s doubtful that anyone will make the same mistake with Chasing Paint, Jane Ira Bloom’s latest disc. Funded by a fellowship from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project, the album conveys a meticulous air even as it heeds jazz’s freer impulses.

Bloom’s soprano saxophone is characteristically fleet and full-toned, capturing all the angular caprice of a brush on canvas. Matching her at every stroke are pianist Fred Hersch (a preternaturally intuitive partner for the better part of two decades) and the incomparable rhythm team of bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Bobby Previte (Bloom’s compatriots since the ’70s and ’90s, respectively). Altogether, the quartet achieves synergy of the highest order and a familiarity that never slips into complacence.

Because Bloom originally envisioned this project as a suite, it makes sense that her compositions add up to a variegated whole. The disc ranges from bright-eyed swing (“Unexpected Light”) to elegiac balladry (“On Seeing JP”) to halting abstraction (“Alchemy”). At times, Bloom’s trademark electronic effects manage to evoke a drip painting’s network of color and line. Yet even at its most elliptical, this album remains wholly approachable. Like a Pollock canvas, it needn’t be explained to be understood.

Chasing Paint can be purchased on Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.

Terence Blanchard, 'Bounce' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Terence Blanchard began this century on one trajectory and took a smart, surprising turn toward another. A former Young Lion trumpet paragon who'd become known for his contributions to the filmography of Spike Lee, Blanchard projected an image of luxurious comfort in his solo career at the dawn of the 2000s. 

Gary Giddins, writing in '01, observed that he "is one of the most distinctive trumpet players of his generation, but his trademark, a purring glissando, has become fussy and predictable." Giddins was writing in the Village Voice about a silky Blanchard album called Let's Get Lost, which featured vocal turns by Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Jane Monheit and Diana Krall. (Ben Ratliff, taking a somewhat skeptical view of this all-star effort, hailed the album in The New York Times as "an example of jazz marketing at its most finely calibrated.") It seemed clear that Blanchard could keep cruising in this mode for a while.

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But Bounce, his debut for Blue Note, suggested something else entirely: a postmillennial update of the hard-boppish tradition on which Blanchard had cut his teeth, and a showcase for some excellent younger talent. Along with saxophonist Brice Winston and drummer Eric Harland, who'd both appeared on Let's Get Lost, this album introduced several important new voices: guitarist Lionel Loueke, a maverick from Benin; pianist Aaron Parks, a prodigy from Seattle; and bassist Brandon Owens, a multi-phase talent from Los Angeles. (Robert Glasper, 24 at the time of the sessions, joined this ensemble as an accent, playing organ and some piano.)

Bounce includes a cooled-out take on "Footprints," the Wayne Shorter classic, as well as a pugnacious burner called "Fred Brown." But what set it apart — marking it as an album not only of its time but also pointing toward the near horizon — were the original compositions, including one apiece by Parks, Harland and Owens. Listen to these themes, and the way the musicians move through them, and you can hear a whole set of new protocols locking into place.

Blanchard, already a garlanded composer, brought some memorable new tunes to the table himself. "Passionate Courage" has all the hallmarks of his style, from a brooding rhythmic bed to an intuitive yet unexpected harmonic turn to a shapely melodic line. It's a calmly intrepid theme, which just about sets the tone for much of what Blanchard would accomplish in the next decade. Which is really saying something.

Purchase Bounce on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

David Binney, 'South' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


My earliest recollection of seeing alto saxophonist David Binney is from 1998 or so, just after I moved to New York. He was playing at The Internet Café, a narrow, sweaty room in the East Village that had about as much cachet and charm as the name would suggest.

Binney was there with a band called Lan Xang, which he formed with tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. I'd admired the group's self-titled debut, released in 1997 on Binney's own label, Mythology Records. The sound of the band in close quarters — by which I mean McCaslin had the bell of his tenor in my face — was a visceral thrill, even if some others in the room were obviously there to check their email.

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I came to understand that self-determinacy is a hallmark of Binney's artistic profile, along with the compulsion to hybridize. By the early 2000s I was seeing him regularly at the 55 Bar and Cornelia Street Café, always with a terrific band combining volatile heat and a sleek feeling of lift.

One such group featured Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Uri Caine on piano, Adam Rogers on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums. They recorded an album called South for ACT Records in 2000, though it took a few more years to see release in the United States.

The album is a hyper-articulate postbop sprint, with every member of the group functioning at his peak — and pointing in the general direction of future bands like Chris Potter's Underground and the Donny McCaslin Quartet (more on those later). Listen here for the braided, dark-hued saxophone lines, for the tidal swell of rhythm, for an inexorable forward pull at every moment, with every move. 

South is available for purchase at Amazon, or can be streamed on Spotify.

The Bad Plus, 'These Are the Vistas' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


It has become all too easy to forget how radical The Bad Plus seemed circa 2003, when These Are the Vistas appeared on the all-but-phased-out jazz imprint of Columbia Records. This acoustic but high-octane trio — with Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano, David King on drums — presented a pugnacious front, not just unified in purpose but aggressively fused in its sound.

In recent months, the band has made news for its turbulent yet altogether successful transition from one social configuration to the next. Last spring, Iverson announced his intention to depart The Bad Plus, and his band mates appointed a successor, the postbop piano dynamo Orrin Evans. I delved into this story, speaking with all parties, and later helped create an episode of Jazz Night in America about it.

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None of this drama was on the known horizon when These Are the Vistas made its entrance. At the time, and for quite a while afterward, The Bad Plus was impressive in its indivisibility, and in the assertion of a nonhierarchical model for the state-of-the-art improvising piano trio.

The other thing that grabbed attention was the band's choice of repertory. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Squarepusher's "Flim" — these were covers reflecting a Gen X sensibility, a set of preferences true to the life experience of Anderson and King. (Iverson, an unapologetic yet largely nonjudgmental jazz and classical partisan, came to rock and electronic music relatively late.)

What was already clear on These Are the Vistas, though some observers would take a while to acknowledge it, was the audacious integrity of its original music. Each member of The Bad Plus contributed new music to its book, and some of these pieces were fantastic in their scope and execution. 

Reviewing the album for JazzTimes, I noted that the album's tour de force was "Silence is the Question," an Anderson composition that "works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors." 

"If The Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz," I added, "it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these."

These Are the Vistas is available on Amazon, on Spotify, or on Apple Music.

Below, find my first piece for The Village Voice — a review of The Bad Plus at the Bowery Ballroom, which solidified something about its pop-cultural reach. 

Village Voice | Sound of the City | March 23, 2004

Victory Parade

Power-piano trio takes jazz to the people—but no requests

By Nate Chinen

The dude who kept shouting for “Free Bird” doesn’t get the Bad Plus. Yes, they’re cornballs from the heartland. Yes, they’ve covered Nirvana and Neil Young. But there’s no place for irony in their rumpus room, which is littered with press clippings and spare neckties. An acoustic jazz piano trio with arena rock on the brain, this band courts chaos but never loosens its grip on the wheel.

At their first honest-to-goodness New York rock show, the Bad Plus managed to play every song but one from their new Columbia album Give. In fact, the show sounded more like the album—vast, thunderous, and cathartic—than like previous Bad Plus gigs in asymmetrical, low-ceilinged rooms. If last year’s Village Vanguard engagements were like crusaders storming the castle, this one was more a victory parade.

Partly this was due to the rapturous full house; partly it was inherent in the music. Ethan Iverson favors simple but somehow grandiloquent accents in the piano’s upper register, a trait counterbalanced by Anderson’s low-slung basslines and David King’s often brutish percussion. The net result is sweeping, epic: The Pixies’ “Velouria” came across like Squarepusher wrangling “Chariots of Fire.” Like every other song of the night, it reached a dramatic climax, with an air of triumph after great and noble struggle.

What kept that struggle engaging was how much the band is a band. Iverson played a lot of piano, but took standout solos only on Anderson’s luminous, lonesome “Neptune (Planet)” and King’s ploddingly funky “1979 Semi-Finalist.” He sounded most like a conventional piano-trio pianist on the stately new “Prehensile Dream.” He sounded least so on the inevitable first encore, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” more viscerally satisfying in person than on disc. The second encore was a goofy sing-along called “People of the World Are United.” Thing is, they meant it.