Cassandra Wilson, 'Belly of the Sun' (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.)


Cassandra Wilson had already solidified her aura — deep sorcery, commingled with dark sensuality — when she took up in an abandoned train station in Clarksdale, Miss. to make Belly of the Sun. 

Just as on her breakthrough Blue Note albums Blue Light 'Til Dawn (1993) and New Moon Daughter (1995), this one finds Wilson foraging through the back pages of the rustic American south, drawing whatever connection she can between Delta blues, early jazz, folk revivalism and adult-contemporary pop. This is an album extremely easy on the ears, which can make it a candidate for underestimation — especially by those who like to see their jazz vocalists pushing against limits, and not just the limits of genre.

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There's very little push in Belly of the Sun, which runs decisively more lean-back than lean-in. Singing "Waters of March," by Antônio Carlos Jobim, Wilson actually laughs in the middle of one phrase, as if she'd almost just tripped over a child's toy in the studio. "The Weight," a song by Robbie Robertson of The Band, has an instrumental backing almost too luxurious in its lightly distressed rustic twang, like a farmhouse dresser in the Restoration Hardware catalog.

But listen to how good she sounds on that track — on the whole album, really. A bit later in the decade, writing about a different Wilson recording, I put it this way: "Her deep-earth contralto is difficult to describe — it’s late-morning sunlight and bittersweet molasses, or “sultry” or “sumptuous” or whatever else you’ve got — but unfailingly easy to recognize, even for the portion of the population that would be hard-pressed to put a face to her name."

And more than either Blue Light or New Moon, this album revels in deep blues. Listen to Wilson's version of a Mississippi Fred McDowell gospel number, "You Gotta Move," featuring bottleneck guitar work from Richard Johnston and Kevin Breit, and rough, thumping percussion from Cyro Baptista and Jeffrey Haynes.

There's plenty to be said for Wilson's influence as a vocal omnivore: the ways in which she cleared a way for someone like Norah Jones, and set a bar for someone like Gregory Porter. There's also an interesting journey in Wilson's career, which began with the future-funk of M-BASE before settling into a heartland groove. We'll leave all that for now, though. Listen to this voice, and consider how it makes you feel. 

Belly of the Sun can be purchased on Amazon, or streamed on Apple Music or Spotify.

Cecil Taylor, 'The Willisau Concert' (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.)


Cecil Taylor, who died on April 5 of this year at 89, was arguably the single most galvanizing figure in improvised music during the second half of the 20th Century. But it would be a folly to suggest that his genius was somehow constrained by those parameters; he was no more limited by the century of his birth than he was by the standard conventions of the piano. 

I wrote a critical appreciation in the hours after his death, and I'm not likely to improve on it here. But I'd like to add that while I first began seeing Taylor in the 1990s — at every opportunity that arose, once I arrived in New York — my experience seeing him mostly unfolded after the year 2000. For me personally, he was as much a figure of the 21st century as he was the 20th. Factor in the long shadow he casts among younger improvisers, notably pianists like Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, and and you have a legitimate case for his continuing ascendence in our time.

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To be sure, Taylor became less accessible, which is one reason that his final two concerts in New York were such major cultural events. (I reviewed one of these, an astonishing solo performance at Harlem Stage, for The New York Times. I wrote about the other one, a residency at the Whitney, for JazzTimes.) He seemed to be receding into a runic eccentricity, leaving us to better ponder a vast and inscrutable body of recorded work.  

The Willisau Concert was recorded in 2000, at the Jazz Festival Willisau in Switzerland, and released on the Intakt label two years later. It's a solo recital of characteristic sweep and seizure, full of Taylor's trademarks as a tone scientist. The selection here, listed on the album as "Part 2," is a fine distillation of the concert's spirit. There are moments in the track when Taylor seems to gesture toward Duke Ellington, one of his longstanding touchstones. There are other moments when his rummaging feels like an expression of dance, or kinetic sculpture. 

At every moment there's a clear, defiant sense of articulated form. This is no series of random actions, as some wary appraisals would have it. Taylor was so far beyond that, we're still catching up to him. 

(For more about Cecil Taylor, read this brilliant long piece by Adam Shatz.)

Tomasz Stanko, 'Soul of Things' (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.)


"In my young times," the trumpeter Tomasz Stańko told me in 2002, speaking in English from his home in Warsaw, "I was into literature and painting, and looking for the avant-garde in any kind of experiences. It was kind of natural for me, for these reasons, to look for Ornette Coleman's music. Also, with this new style it was more natural to find my own language — in new kinds of things, not through copies of Miles or Chet. It was easier for me to find myself."

In Playing Changes, Stanko comes up in the context of jazz's reach and mutation outside the United States — a story that goes far beyond any straightfoward narrative of musical export. He was part of the first generation of important jazz artists in Eastern Europe, and in a certain sense a living symbol of that complex process of cultural transmission. 

Stanko was nearing 60 when we talked, already a Polish jazz icon and one of the most revered improvisers in Europe. He was excited to be at the helm of a strong new quartet, featuring a younger rhythm section — pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, drummer Michal Miskiewicz — that had separately recorded as the Simple Acoustic Trio.

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The quartet's album Soul of Things bears a cover image appropriated from Jean-Luc Godard's 2001 feature film In Praise of Love. The suitelike album presents a theme parsed into 14 variations. And Stanko traced much of their content back to the stage and screen: "I think 80 percent of these variations are leitmotifs from the cinema or theater. Leitmotifs are kinds of melodies. And I'm not a very typical film or theater composer, but I build moods using jazz music — a little similar to what Miles did for Elevator to the Gallows."

That allusion to Louis Malle's 1958 film noir was apt; Davis performed its score as a stark improvisation, rooted in an undercurrent of swing. Soul of Things spans a wider range of tonal colors, but strikes the same atmospheric chord.

Stanko wouldn't endorse the impression of that chord as wistful ("Music for me is not really happy or unhappy; it depends how you are") — but he ceded that his work generally does convey "the kind of feeling that we have in the northern part of Europe, a little the same like Chopin has: a kind of lyricism together with melancholy." 

Purchase Soul of Things on Amazon, or listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

David Sanchez, 'Melaza' (2000)

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 tenor and soprano saxophonist David Sánchez originally hails from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, in the greater San Juan metro area. He was mentored as a young musician by the august bebop syncretist and cultural ambassador Dizzy Gillespie, in the group pointedly named the United Nation Orchestra.

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Sánchez had already released five previous albums when, as a new signing to Columbia Records, he made Melaza. This album, coproduced by Branford Marsalis, was intended as a serious statement: its title translates to "molasses," which of course is the viscous byproduct of sugarcane refinery, as well as a sticky vestige of capitalist colonial suppression. Arriving as it did on a major label in the year 2000, it was sometimes regarded as a complement of sorts to Motherlanda markedly more utopian statement by the Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez. 

What distinguishes Melaza is the fast tread and heavy traction of a real band, and especially a churning rhythm section comprising Edsel Gomez on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass, Pernell Saturino on percussion, and either Adam Cruz or Antonio Sánchez (no relation) on drums. These would all be important figures on the development of a new Latin-jazz, on their own and in a range of other working bands.

Another notable feature on Melaza is the fact that Sánchez stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the frontline with a fiercely intelligent young alto player named Miguel Zenón. They often phrase the album's themes in coiled-spring harmony, shifting and moving as one. "Zenón’s lithe, airy alto presence is a wonderful addition to the group," Peter Margasak observed in his review for JazzTimes, "expanding the harmonic possibilities of the tunes, and providing a nice textural counter to Sanchez’s post-Coltrane muscle." (It should come as no surprise, but this isn't the last you'll see Miguel Zenón on this list.) 

Purchase Melaza on Amazon, or listen on Apple Music or Spotify.

Luciana Souza, 'Brazilian Duos' (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.)


Luciana Souza emerged as a figure of both high-literary and deep-musical ambition, and could remarkably claim both as her birthright. Hailing from São Paulo, Brazil, she is the daughter of two notable artists: the guitarist and singer-songwriter Walter Santos and the poet-lyricist Tereza Souza. She recorded jingles and commercials from early childhood, amassing hundreds of studio hours before she eventually found her way to Boston, for degrees at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory.

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I first experienced Souza's voice as a splash of color on albums by musicians in that circle — notably Danilo Pérez's Motherland, and some contemporaneous releases by saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and composer-arranger Guillermo Klein. Somehow I missed her 1999 debut, but took careful note of an inspired follow-up in 2000, The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs

Then, in what felt both like a return to her roots and the subtle reinvention of a format, Souza released Brazilian Duos. A sparse, full-hearted take on the magnificent voz e violão tradition, it featured several brilliant guitarists — her father, along with Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira. The album finds Souza paying homage to her cultural foundation, while firmly reserving the right to dash off in any direction of her choosing.

''People say, 'Oh, you're so eclectic,' and I usually say that I really don't look at styles anymore,'' she told Terry Teachout around the time of the album release, in a profile for the New York Times. ''I recognize, well, it's classical music or contemporary this or jazz that, or Brazilian, but I'm not worried about that. Only I don't want to be categorized as 'the Brazilian singer.' I look, I sound, I am, I wouldn't want to escape that — Portuguese is a delicious language to sing in, but I didn't want to be just that."

Still, it's glorious when she does embrace this music — as on the album-opening "Baião Medley." It stitches several songs together: "Respeita Januário" and "Qui Nem Julió," by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira; and "Romance," by the contemporary pop songwriter Djavan. Souza's composure, as always, is a marvel.

For more information about Luciana Souza, visit her website

Wayne Shorter Quartet, 'Footprints Live!' (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.)


The postmillennial Wayne Shorter Quartet — Shorter on saxophones, Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums — receives a fair amount of attention in Playing Changes. To my mind it's one of the most influential working bands of the last 20 years, for the way that it bridges the eternal verities of jazz with a heady sense of unfolding possibility in the here and now. And now. And now. And... now. 

Perhaps you recall the seismic impact of this band when it first emerged. Shorter hadn't led an acoustic combo of this sort in years, even decades. His fusionesque output in the 1990s had been divisive, both heralded and disparaged. So now here comes a new configuration, featuring the grand master backed by a younger rhythm team fresh off its success on Pérez's Motherland (which has already turned up here).

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The 129 Essential Albums list is precisely that, a tally of recordings. And Footprints Live! — the first official release by this magical quartet, culled from several European concerts — fits that bill. But for many observers of the scene, this band left its impression well before releasing any product. If you saw the new Wayne Shorter Quartet on tour in 2001, you probably remember the thrill of hearing familiar material turned inside out, or outside in. Shorter wasn't playing, as some folks say. Yet he most definitely came to play.

In a sense, I could have selected one of the band's later albums — like Without a Net, from 2013 — and felt satisfied with my choice. But the importance of Footprints Live! as a historical document, a statement in and of its time, can hardly be overlooked. It was a dispatch from enigmatic coordinates, but also evidence of "the jazz tradition" in brilliant, destabilizing flux.

Because I see the album as a harbinger of the band, I'm going to break from my custom here and post footage of a live performance, rather than a track off the release. Here is a version of "Footprints" captured at the 2001 Newport Jazz Festival, a couple of weeks after the concerts chronicled on the record.

From the top of the clip, this is music full of pointed challenge: listen for how the first atonal fillip by Pérez provokes an "Uh-oh!" just a few seconds in. Listen, too, for how much elasticity and license Shorter brings to an articulation of the theme. This is one of his most iconic compositions, and he's pulling it apart like taffy. The rest of the band follows his lead, edging out onto precarious territory, without ever missing a step.

Purchase Footprints Live! at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Tim Berne, 'Science Friction' (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.)


For a few years in the early 2000s, I saw an awful lot of Tim Berne. Mostly in the Old Office space at the Knitting Factory, where the dimensions were tight and the sound could be fierce.

The group that set the bar then was Bloodcount, a take-no-prisoners quartet with Berne on alto and baritone saxophones, Chris Speed on tenor, Michael Formanek on bass and Jim Black on drums. This band had all the fury and combustion of a postpunk band, but with the spontaneous agility of the best sort of jazz combo. (For the full immersion, consult the Screwgun Records page on Bandcamp.)

At some point in 2001, Berne began bringing around a different foursome. This band featured the gonzo French guitarist Marc Ducret; the quick-flash drummer Tom Rainey; and the revelatory keyboardist Craig Taborn, often using borrowed analog synths and Fender Rhodes. I knew Taborn then as the pianist in James Carter's Young Lionish band of the '90s. Here he seemed to be spiraling out into some outer nebula, expanding the texture and tonality of the band in ways that felt thrillingly in-the-moment, even almost illicit. 

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As you can imagine, I was gobsmacked by Science Friction, the album that this group eventually released. Here was a new paragon of Berne's long-form compositional strategies, with warped echoes of early-'70s Miles Davis, the late-'80s downtown scene, and the eternal verities of the AACM. 

And whereas Bloodcount conveyed a feeling of sweat and toil, the band on Science Friction sounded elliptically, enigmatically cool, like something that had just tumbled out of the hatch of an alien spacecraft. I can still identify with this impression when I listen to the album today; check out the opening track, "Huevos," below, and see what you feel.

Ben Allison, 'Peace Pipe' (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.)


The Jazz Composers Collective was a force for good throughout the Clinton Era and beyond: founded by bassist Ben Allison in 1992, it remained active until 2005 (with the occasional reunion since).

During that 13-year span, the group's model of collectivism within the jazz mainstream — as opposed to the avant-garde, where the AACM reigns — was unusual enough to make news. "For those who keep score in the tradition-versus-innovation jazz wars," mused Ben Ratliff in a review from 2001, "suffice it to say that the ranks of the J.C.C. include members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (the saxophonist Ted Nash and the trombonist Wycliffe Gordon) as well as the Lounge Lizards (the saxophonist Michael Blake)."

About a month after that review, Allison appeared at Symphony Space on a 12-hour marathon concert called Wall-to-Wall Miles Davis. I remember seeing him there, in a group that surprisingly featured two Malian musicians, bringing new inflections to "Milestones." That experiment was apparently something of a lark — but it worked well enough that Allison was inspired to develop new music around the sound of the kora, reenlisting one of those West Africans, Mamadou Diabaté. 

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That album was Peace Pipe, featuring Diabaté alongside resourceful J.C.C. members like Blake and pianist Frank Kimbrough. The sound of the album was sleek, chattery and alert, in a cultural convergence that felt novel but hardly forced.

"I got together with each of the musicians separately at first," Allison writes in the album liner notes, "and then worked on integrating all of the sounds I was hearing: bass slaps trading with drum rim shots, interior piano pings offsetting kora melodies, and saxophone floating over the top of everything." 

"Slap Happy," the album's second track, brilliantly embodies the potential of this intuitive strategy. Allison sets up a jaunty bass line, and Diabaté joins him, in a counterpoint as delicate as lacework. Kimbrough adds his own rhythmic flair, pinging the piano strings in a way designed to evoke a kalimba, or maybe a second kora.

Then comes the heart of the track, for me: a Kimbrough solo that begins muted, with one hand dampening the strings. This percussive exhibition is engaging on its own, but when he finally lets the strings resonate, at 3:40, the whole solo opens up, like the sun emerging from a bank of clouds.

You could hear this piano solo and be reminded of mid-'70s Keith Jarrett, which would only be fair. But you'd be missing the point. You might also be missing the outright beauty of Diabaté's solo, which comes next in the lineup, and simply exudes radiance.

You can purchase Peace Pipe on MP3 directly from Ben Allison, at his website.

Matthew Shipp, 'New Orbit' (2001)

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.)


Matthew Shipp was on a serious tear in the early 2000s: working hard and fast in the David S. Ware Quartet, which has already appeared in the 129 Essential Albums rundown; curating the Blue Series, a stylish imprint on the Thirsty Ear label; and of course, releasing album upon album of furiously smart improvised music, with an array of heavyweight collaborators. 

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I could have chosen almost any of Shipp's albums from this period and felt secure in my reasoning. But I'm thinking in particular of Pastoral Composure, released in 2000, which kicked off the Blue Series in full stride. It chronicled an excellent free-improvising quartet with Roy Campbell on trumpet and flugelhorn, William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. New Orbit, from 2001, enlisted the same rhythm section with a different trumpeter: Wadada Leo Smith, a powerful elder in the avant-garde, a figure of fierce concentration and unwavering commitment to the moment.

Listen here to "Chi," one of the longer tracks on the album, which opens with a trumpet invocation as penetrating and grave as a military fanfare. When the ensemble joins the fray, just over a minute in, it's with a sense of instant communion, as if they've already been silent partners in the exchange. 

Buy New Orbit at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

John Scofield, 'Works For Me' (2001)

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 turn of the century was a distinctly groovy time for the guitarist John Scofield. Having led one of the great elastic post-bop bands of the 1990s, a swinging quartet featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, he'd diversified his profile in with the release of A Go Go, a collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood. Then came Bump, in 2000 — a full-on plunge into fusion, with a state-of-the-art funk rhythm section.

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Works For Me, released in 2001, was more than Sco's acquiescent return to swinging jazz. It wasn't really that at all, in fact; one fundamental truth about John Scofield is that he draws no value distinction between music that bops and music that grooves. What made this album special was its all-star personnel: Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass, Billy Higgins on drums. That's three generations of excellence, with Higgins embodying the role of elder and sage.

The genius of Billy Higgins on this album goes beyond a wisdom of experience, though that's clearly a part of it. Higgins was, famously, the proprietor of a unique and special pulse that fell somewhere on the spectrum between straight and swinging; consult Lee Morgan's iconic "The Sidewinder" for a textbook example. Or listen to Scofield's "Loose Canon" below, which occupies a limber, bobbing groove, reminiscent of a boxer warming up in the ring.

There are some rock-solid solos on the track, along with some sterling comping. (Listen to what Mehldau does behind Scofield, punctuating pauses and answering questions.) Garrett brings a good Sriracha blast of tartness and heat, before Master Higgins does a bit of amicable thrashing over the vamp, sounding relaxed and in command. He was 64 at the time of this album's release. A few months later, he was gone.

Purchase Works For Me on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Kurt Rosenwinkel, 'The Next Step' (2001)

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.)


Kurt Rosenwinkel must known something when he titled his fourth album The Next Step. A guitarist who emerged in the 1990s, conversant in the post-bop tradition but eager to forge his own style and sound, he made a personal breakthrough here — crafting a statement that has deeply informed more than one subsequent wave of the modern mainstream.

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The Next Step features a quartet of peers, honed sharp by many hours on the bandstand at Smalls Jazz Club, where they basically had the run of the place. Along with the brilliant tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, a former classmate of Rosenwinkel's at the Berklee College of Music, this band included Ben Street on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Together, on the album, they sound both reflective and radiant.

The influence of their style, floaty and glowing and alert, has been so pervasive in recent years that it can be easy to forget how new it felt in 2001. At the time, that inward-seeking quality could even be processed as a limitation. Reviewing the band at the Village Vanguard for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff characterized The Next Step as "the epitome of sensitive, modest-tempered art, the kind that doesn't assert itself until the moment is right." 

The moment has been right for a while now; these musicians were working toward something enticing yet elusive, just beyond the visible horizon. But it's not as if the message couldn't be absorbed from the start. Listen to "Zhivago," the opening track on The Next Step, and you hear a full sweep of characteristics that define Rosenwinkel's sound — and a harbinger of things to come.

Purchase The Next Step at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Marilyn Crispell / Paul Motian / Gary Peacock, 'Amaryllis' (2001)

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.)


Marilyn Crispell's Amaryllis suggests both an extension and a departure. She had released one previous ECM album with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian — the 1997 repertory nod Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: The Music of Annette Peacock. This follow-up proceeded with less of a binding agenda, but the same degree of collective intuition.

Crispell had become known, during the late 1970s and throughout the '80s, for a furious, intelligent strain of pianism indebted to Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley. She spent a decade in Anthony Braxton's band, and personified the anti-absorptive strategies of a self-sustaining avant-garde. 

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Amaryllis, named after a winter-blooming flower of the Andes, staked out a different position, though not an unrelated one. Crispell was warming to a new strain of lyricism, which she described as "an emerging quality" at the time.  

"I've been trying to be in touch with what I really am hearing," she told me in 2002, speaking by phone from her home in Woodstock, New York. "What I've noticed is that I'm moving away from a kind of angst-ridden, Viennese, Schoenberg-ian kind of tonality. Not necessarily into a self-indulgent romanticism, but more into a kind of... a pure lyrical quality, more abstract."

Working with Peacock and Motian, two acknowledged masters of lyrical abstraction, no doubt helped her move toward this aim. The album features compositions by all three artists, including a Peacock's "December Greenwings" and Motian's "Conception Vessel." There's a contemplative, almost hymnal quality in some of the pieces, most obviously "Prayer" and "Requiem."

But it's not as if Crispell has checked her exploratory impulse at the door. Listen here to "Rounds," a swarming piece that she first recorded in the early '80s. It's a fine illustration of the chiming, restless resonance of this trio, and a reminder (as if one were needed) that experimental urges could naturally cohabit with a luminous sort of beauty.

Purchase Amaryllis at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

The Claudia Quintet, 'The Claudia Quintet' (2001)

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.)


John Hollenbeck has been an important artist in and around improvised music in this century, not only as a drummer-bandleader but also as a composer and an arranger. The restriction I set for myself with the 129 Essential Albums list was difficult here, because I knew I could only include one album credited to Hollenbeck, and there are several others that could easily have made the cut. I'm still not sure, writing now, that The Claudia Quintet was the right choice; there have been more polished albums since, not only from the five-piece in question but also from the spectacular John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. (The most recent by that next-wave big band, All Can Work, was released early this year, and warrants some of your time.) 

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What led me to select this album over any others, ultimately, was the notion of impact. Back in 2001, when The Claudia Quintet emerged from a DIY coffeehouse improv scene on the Lower East Side, its gracefully amalgamated sound was uncommon, idiosyncratic and totally inspired. As I sat down to write this post, I tried to remember what I thought about the album when it first arrived, and somehow the internet obliged. Below, find a Critic's Pick blurb from the late, lamented Philadelphia City Paper in 2002. I haven't changed a word.

It's impossible to classify The Claudia Quintet (postmodern-ethnic-ambient-chamber-jazz, anyone?) but surprisingly easy to understand its language. A brainchild of percussionist John Hollenbeck (best known for supporting roles with Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer and Cuong Vu), the ensemble reflects his allegiances to both the roughshod polyrhythms of field recordings and the lunar shimmer of ECM. On a brand-new, eponymous Blueshift CRI debut, these ostensibly dueling impulses get absorbed into a larger, more intriguing pattern of ebb and flow. Texture is naturally a key component, given the band's frontline of vibraphone, clarinet and accordion — but the central figure in Hollenbeck's drama is pulse, often obliquely independent of rhythm or time. It's a delicate equation, but it works beautifully, thanks to clarinetist Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and vibraphonist Matt Moran. Like Hollenbeck, these musicians have the rare ability to wax ethereal without dulling their edges.

 

Purchase The Claudia Quintet at this page, or stream it on Spotify.

Chicago Underground Quartet, 'Chicago Underground Quartet' (2001)

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 Chicago Underground Duo — Rob Mazurek on cornet and electronics, Chad Taylor on drums and percussion — already had a robust following by 2001, when its frame expanded to accommodate two fellow travelers. They were guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Noel Kupersmith, both associated with an array of instrumental bands in the post-rock realm, notably Tortoise, Brokeback and Isotope 217.

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Parker and Kupersmith do more than flesh out the sound of the group. Their addition brings the music of the Chicago Underground unit into more direct contact with the post-bop lineage — not by guided intention, but still in practical and discernible ways. Still, this is a music whose otherworldly qualities ring clear and true, pointing toward a school of electro-acoustic hybridism that we now take a little too much for granted.

Below, find the opening track from the album, a stark invention called "Tunnel Chrome." Beginning with an arpeggiated tumble of notes from Parker, who also takes the first solo, it reaches its apex during an improvisation by Mazurek, who runs his cornet through some sort of digital filter. (I've played this track for a few folks who swore it was a synthesizer solo.) 

Mazurek and Taylor have continued their work as the Chicago Underground Duo, and each has been a vital contributor to the improvised-music scene at large. Parker, who will turn up again in the Essential Albums list, has been a restless creative soul, both as a bandleader and a sideman. Chicago Underground Quartet points clearly to a moment when the work of these artists was just converging in fascinating ways — prophesying a musical future that we've had the good fortune to inhabit.

Buy Chicago Underground Quartet digitally at this page, or physically at Amazon.

David S. Ware Quartet, 'Surrendered' (2000)

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 righteous, prayerful bluster of David S. Ware's tenor saxophone was an important force on the ground in New York at the turn of the century. And I do mean "force" — Ware could project with a physical intensity that rattled the ribcage, if you were sitting close enough in the room. 

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A veteran of the New York loft scene and a catalyst for the perpetual avant-garde, Ware led a phenomenal band in the early 2000s with Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass and Guillermo E. Brown on drums. (Previous iterations included several other fine drummers.) For a hot minute, this quartet recorded for Columbia Records, as a result of some inspired kamikaze calculation by Branford Marsalis, a label A&R exec at the time. Ware's first Columbia release was the excellent Go See the World, released in 1998 (with Susie Ibarra on drums). Surrendered was the second Columbia release. There never was a third. 

The intensity of commitment in the DSWQ is apparent on every track of Surrendered. Gary Giddins may have been weighing in on a different record when he issued his famous pronouncement the following year — "Let's be bold: The David S. Ware Quartet is the best small band in jazz today" — but the praise fully applies here. 

Ware went on to release a flood of music in the 2000s, mainly on the AUM Fidelity label. (The label has continued issuing material since his death in 2012; last year it released Live in New York, 2010, a document from a club engagement that I reviewed for the NY Times.) 

What led me to select Surrendered for the 129 Essential Albums list is its generosity of scope and spirit; this is a DSWQ recording that almost any jazz listener could appreciate, if not for the stubborn preconceptions around "free jazz" or "the avant-garde." There's a version of Charles Lloyd's "Sweet Georgia Bright" on this album, and a calypso that points firmly in the direction of Sonny Rollins. But what drives the whole enterprise is a sense of quest — the same feeling, on some level, that many younger listeners now associate with Kamasi Washington.

Listen to "Theme of Ages," and the way that a compact, anthemic theme gradually assumes epic proportions. Just don't try to tell me that this music remains locked in its moment in time. 

David S. Ware's Surrendered can be purchased on Amazon or streamed on Spotify.

Danilo Pérez, 'Motherland' (2000)

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.)


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Here's an album that receives a good amount of play in Playing Changes. Danilo Pérez knew he had accomplished something great when he finished Motherland, an album of sweeping ambition, farsighted vision and deep personal resonance. The album was no less than a manifesto for a contemporary pan-American jazz synthesis, drawing not only from his native Panama but also from Brazil and Chile and even West Africa, by way of the Caribbean.  

I remember an album-release concert at the Bowery Ballroom, featuring the album's full cast of characters, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin, singer Luciana Souza, and bassist and vocalist Richard Bona. There was a real sense of expanding possibility, of a smart and serious artist urging his own tradition forward. 

There's a track on the album called "Suite For The Americas, Part 1," which lays out its thematic material in a succinct and organized fashion, as in an overture. (Never mind that there's also a track on the album titled "Overture.") Later in the track list comes "Suite For The Americas, Part 2," which I consider even more emblematic, because it features some sharp improvisation, from Pérez as well as violinist Regina Carter. This was a persuasive new possibility for Latin-jazz, and for modern jazz more generally. I regarded it as a landmark statement at the time, and that feels even truer today.

Hear Motherland on Amazon, on Spotify, or on Apple Music.

Nils Petter Molvær, 'Solid Ether' (2000)

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.)


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Solid Ether opens in the established vein of an ECM Records release. Solo trumpet. Whispery, poignant, Nordic. A slow accumulation of glassy underlay. This is Nils Petter Molvær, not quite 40 at the time, setting up one hell of a gut punch.

It lands almost precisely at the two-minute mark: a shuddery premonition of electronics, and then a hard, full-blown drum-n-bass groove. Anyone who'd been paying close attention was primed for this — the previous Molvær album on ECM, Khmer, pointed the way — but still, the lunging audacity of this music was a shock, if not entirely a surprise.

Shock is easy, though. What elevates Solid Ether and its indelible opening track, "Dead Indeed," is the care and concentration that Molvær brings to his sculptural treatment of a theme. I remember a lot of jazz-meets-electronic dilettante-ism on the scene at the turn of the century, but here we have a true connoisseur of the form — a sonic collagist who understands the art of layering, the potential of the technology, and the timeless value of melody. (Hear the floaty trumpet-and-synth theme that moves, implacable, over the heave and growl in the bass clef. "Solid ether" indeed.)

Elsewhere on the album, there are contributions from DJ Strangefruit, a bassist and a pair of drummers. But "Dead Indeed" features only guitarist Eivind Aarset and Molvær himself — on synthesizer, sampler, loops and various other effects. I've seen him pull off this sorcery live, and it's as impressive at it seems. What it augured in 2000 was a smarter, more fully syncretic brand of electro-jazz (ugh, that ungainly term) that was beginning to find purchase in the mainstream.

Buy Solid Ether from Amazon or stream it on Spotify.

Kurt Elling, 'Live in Chicago' (2000)

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.)


There was already reason enough to hail Kurt Elling as one of our new jazz-vocal titans when he released Live in Chicago, in the second week of 2000. The album, recorded at the venerable Green Mill, is a manifesto: by turns searching, scorching or sentimental. What it communicates above all is the depth of connection between the singer and the song, and the band, and the room.

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A decade after this recording was made, I wrote a column for JazzTimes declaring Elling "the most influential jazz vocalist of our time." But almost every facet of my argument is already present on Live in Chicago, which gives Elling room to showcase his hyper-fluent, new-breed vocalese; his spark and swagger as a performer; and his empathic precision as a balladeer. His frame of reference is also distinctly contemporary, reflecting the tastes of an artist who came of age in the 1980s and '90s. 

One common knock on Elling, over the years, has been a charge of pretentiousness. I'm not among those who balks at the high-literary allusions in his lyrics, or the showbiz gleam in his presentation. But I will concede that to truly appreciate Elling, you have to go all in and take him at his word. A case in point: this version of "My Foolish Heart," his calling card at the time. In the middle of the performance is a mysterious detour: a poetic recitation of "One Dark Night," by the 16th-century Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross. 

Purchase or stream Live in Chicago here.

Brian Blade Fellowship, 'Perceptual' (2000)

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.)


Brian Blade Fellowship released its self-titled debut album in 1998 — one year after Blade, a drummer with a beautiful touch and an elastic sense of time, first formed the band. From the start, it had a sound remarkable for its soft glow and insinuative forward pull, along with a harmonic signature informed by the Southern gospel and folk music of Blade's upbringing. 

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By the time the Fellowship made a second album, Perceptual, it was no longer a revelation to hear this cauldron of sounds. But Blade and his pianist-coproducer, Jon Cowherd, had forged an ever-stronger bond, figuring out what worked best within their style. The signature of The Pat Metheny Group is obvious, framed more or less as an homage, but there was so much else in this music besides — notably a forthright commitment to deep melody and a graceful play of tension and release. Blade had only played drums on the first album; here he also provides some vocals and acoustic guitar. The other guitarists on the album are Kurt Rosenwinkel (acoustic and electric), Dave Easley (pedal steel) and yes, Daniel Lanois (all of the above). Joni Mitchell even lends a guest vocal on one track.

But if you want sense of what made Perceptual so powerful then, and so enduring today, try "Evinrude-Fifty (Trembling)," the album's second track. Beginning in an expectant hum, it opens up to an imploring melody, carried aloft by Rosenwinkel and alto saxophonist Myron Walden. Then comes a dark, bluesy riff and a chorus like the skyward release of a pack of doves, as Walden harmonizes with tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler. There's more: a crisp piano solo by Cowherd, a wicked pedal steel turn by Easley. Pure bliss.

Buy Perceptual at Amazon or stream it on Spotify.

Jim Black's AlasNoAxis, AlasNoAxis (2000)

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.)


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I first encountered Jim Black in Philly, on a mid-'90s gig with Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio. His playing nailed me to the spot, in a way that it hadn’t on record: he was capable of so much texture in the midst of so much propulsion. I soon sought out more of his sideman work — with Tim Berne, Uri Caine and others — and caught dozens more gigs, especially after I moved to New York.

AlasNoAxis dropped out of the sky soon after this. And it prompted me to reconsider Black yet again. Here was a rounded, yearningly forthright, deeply modern-sounding music, nearly devoid of the craggy complexities he was usually compelled to tackle. Tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed functioned partly as a vocal surrogate, fleshing out long-tone melodies over a shifting series of drones. The Icelandic half of the group, bassist Skúli Sverrisson and guitarist Hilmar Jensson, brought deep-saturated color to their open chords and flinty arpeggios. Driving the bus was Black, who imbued each of his backbeat grooves with micro-variations; his hookup with Sverrisson often hit upon a shrewdly woozy disorientation.

“It takes confidence in this world sometimes just to bring out those things that actually come out very quickly and honestly,” Black told me in 2000, before the band’s Philadelphia debut. “And it wasn’t until I heard the music with the band that I was convinced I was doing the right thing.”

AlasNoAxis has released six albums, the most recent being Antiheroes in 2013. Listen above to a track from the band's 2000 debut. You can also buy it on Amazon or stream it on Spotify.