Michael Brecker, 'Pilgrimage' (2007)

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.)

Michael Brecker was one of a relatively small handful of modern jazz musicians to single-handedly change the state of the art. He did so as any jazz musician would, by building on and extending an existing language. He was a tenor saxophonist with an absolute technical command, bordering on the superhuman. And his style enacted a malleable combination of John Coltrane’s harmonic genius, Stanley Turrentine’s soul, Johnny Griffin’s ferocity and Sonny Rollins’ rhythmic aplomb (and on and on).

By and large, though, Brecker made his impact in the last third of the 20th century. He was an absolute terror during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s — initially with the jazz-rock bands Dreams and The Brecker Brothers, and then as a killer-for-hire on an imposing run of pop hits.

It’s safe to say that few living jazz musicians loomed larger for me as a teenager. I remember giving my dad very specific instructions when he went on a business trip to Japan: he had to go to a record store and find a copy of Smokin’ In the Pit, a live double album by Steps, only available as an import. (Brecker’s solo on “Tee Bag,” a Mike Mainieri tune, made it worth the effort.) I obsessed over his self-titled 1987 solo debut, and eagerly greeted subsequent efforts like Tales From the Hudson, featuring McCoy Tyner in superb form.


I could go on, but we’re here to talk about the Brecker album I included in the Essential Albums list. It’s the final album Brecker made before his untimely death, of a rare form of leukemia, at age 57. He titled this album Pilgrimage, and made it with a clear understanding of his fate. He surrounded himself with friends, some of the greatest musicians on the planet, and wrote a batch of tunes designed to put them through their paces, in the best way.

The album was released posthumously, and I wrote an admiring capsule review in an Arts & Leisure Playlist:

Pilgrimage (Heads Up) is the final statement by the tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, who died in January, and it represents both a postscript and a pinnacle. Mr. Brecker had been struggling with leukemia for more than a year when he entered a studio last August with a spirit of urgent conviction and a stack of original compositions. You don’t need to know this to be astonished by the mastery and immediacy of the album, which he created with the guitarist Pat Metheny, the bassist John Patitucci, the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the pianists Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau. The songs are harmonically advanced yet often catchy; some, like “Five Months From Midnight,” shrug off their cobweb intricacy. Mr. Brecker plays with lucidity and passion on the churning “Tumbleweed” and the brooding “Half Moon Lane,” and his work on the title track — a spiritual anthem in the John Coltrane vein that shifts into a modern groove — feels calmly valedictory. Of course there is poignancy in the album’s circumstances, which are impossible to ignore. But the power of this music is more than sentimental. In its balance of ambition and abandon, serious-mindedness and ebullience, there’s a crystallization of what jazz, at its best, is about.

Here is a standout track from the album, featuring Mehldau on piano. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Brecker tune. Listen to the tenor solo and tell yourself this man wasn’t in fact invincible.

Purchase Pilgrimage at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or 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. 


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. 


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.

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.


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.