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.)
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.”