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.

Christian McBride, 'Live at Tonic' (2006)

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.)

First of all, I was there. The place was Tonic, a Lower East Side outpost of venturesome eclecticism, which had opened just weeks before my arrival in New York. (I fast became what you might call a regular.) The time: early January of 2005 — a temperate stretch, by northeastern-winter standards. As I recall, folks weren’t as bundled up as you’d expect, for that time of year. Anyway, the room was packed tight. I remember sweating, though that may just be the effect communicated by the music.


Right, the music. Bassist-composer-bandleader Christian McBride had set up for a two-nighter at Tonic with his eponymous band and a choice heap of special guests. The CMB played the first set on both evenings, and those all-star interlopers — like violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Jason Moran and vocal-percussion whiz Scratch, of The Roots — joined for a freewheeling second set. As I recall, the whole affair was advertised as a recording session; Live at Tonic was the eventual result.

In Playing Changes, I write about McBride first in the context of the 1990s “Young Lion” boom, when he was playing with the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and saxophonist Joshua Redman. He hit the scene as a big-toned bass player in a familiar mold, paying homage to Ray Brown and Milt Hinton. But for anyone paying attention to McBride’s choices, there was always another layer. This comes up later in the book, when I pause to catalog a post-Y2K wave of funk, R&B and fusion albums by erstwhile torchbearers, including Hargrove and Redman:

Christian McBride, a lifelong James Brown fanatic, had flirted with funk on his first two albums. His third, A Family Affair, released on Verve in 1998, tilted decisively in that direction, with heavy backbeats and wah-wah electric bass solos. (The title track was a Sly Stone anthem.) McBride then lunged toward fusion, full stop, on his 2000 album Sci-Fi, and teamed up with Questlove and the keyboardist Uri Caine for an expressly groove-centric project called the Philadelphia Experiment, which released a self-titled album in 2001. By the time the Christian McBride Band recorded a three-CD set called Live at Tonic early in 2005, with guests like Charlie Hunter and DJ Logic, the group’s explosive mix of jazz-funk and electronic breakbeats felt reasonable. Few questioned the gall of a former Jazz Future evoking actual jazz futurism.

When Live at Tonic was released, on Ropeadope, I reviewed the album for JazzTimes. (Rereading the review now, I stand by my assessment, which definitively falls on the positive side of “mixed.” Basically, I felt Disc 3 was a stray appendage.) There’s one big reason this is the McBride entry on my 129 Essential Albums list, and it has to do with the hard-charging energy of the CMB on Disc 1.

The band — with McBride on electric and upright bass, Ron Blake on saxophones and flute, Geoffrey Keezer on keyboards, and Terreon Gully on drums — has an inspired ferocity that’s expertly captured on this recording. And it isn’t all about fusioneering. Listen to the deep groove of “Clerow’s Flipped,” which merges an R&B swagger with some old-fashioned tippin’, and even has a Monk quote in the bass solo.

At this point I should note, for full-disclosure purposes, that Christian McBride is now a colleague: we work together on Jazz Night in America, a multi-platform collaboration between WBGO, NPR Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center. That had no bearing on this selection, though. Listen to Live at Tonic, and you’ll understand.

Purchase Live at Tonic on Amazon, or stream it on Spotify.

Andrew Hill, 'Time Lines' (2006)

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 late-career renaissance of pianist-composer Andrew Hill — which effectively began in 1999, with the release of Dusk (Palmetto), and ended only with his death in 2007, at 75 — suggests the fulfillment of every hopeful saw about staying the course, whatever the odds.

Hill maintained an inspired obduracy about his own truth, going all the way back to ageless time capsules like Black Fire and Judgment!, which brought an incipient avant-garde value system into direct contact with Blue Note’s hard-bop machine. (Emphaticism was a trademark of both camps; note that the label also released Andrew!!! and Compulsion!!!!! in the late ‘60s.)


For a substantial subset of musicians and deep listeners, Hill was always major — a far-sighted Chicago native who merged ecumenical curiosity with an enduring foothold in the blues, and stretched the post-bop vocabulary about as far as it could go. But in terms of audience acceptance and even critical endorsement, Hill was on the fringe for most of his long career. (Writing this entry, I was startled to note that he gets barely a nod in Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz. Giddins, of course, covered Hill elsewhere; still, it’s a telling omission.)

Hill had inched toward mainstream approval by the mid-2000s, buoyed in part by the vocal advocacy of pianistic heirs like Frank Kimbrough, Myra Melford and Jason Moran. (For Moran, the relationship bloomed into that of mentor and protégé, especially after the death of his original guru, Jaki Byard.)

I had the good fortune of catching Hill on nearly a dozen occasions, including a few club dates with his Point of Departure band, stocked with younger players like trumpeter Ron Horton, who served as de facto musical director. Time Lines, which marked Hill’s second return to Blue Note, features several of these core figures: Gregory Tardy on tenor saxophone and clarinets, John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. On trumpet is Charles Tolliver, who had worked with Hill in the ‘70s.

Time Lines received universal acclaim — though as its title implies, it wasn’t a new statement so much as the latest point on a continuum. In fact, one of those concerts I’m lucky to have seen was a repertory celebration of Passing Ships, which Hill recorded for Blue Note in 1969, though it only saw release in 2003. The concert, a one-time-only affair, came just months after the release of Time Lines. At the time, I was duly impressed by the ensemble effort but honestly most knocked-out by the rhythm section, the same one as on Time Lines:

Mr. Hill’s pianism had been more properly featured in the concert’s meditative first half, with the bassist John Hebert and the drummer Eric McPherson. Their interaction was wellspring-deep, seemingly in tune on a subconscious level. Rhythms ebbed, surged and overlapped, all by some secret logic. Mr. Hill’s casually solemn abstractions were both gorgeous and gripping.

The same was true of another historic Hill performance, at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan on March 29, 2007. This was a lunchtime trio concert, featuring an original four-movement liturgical work that Hill had titled “Before I.” The music felt profoundly meditative, with a feathery balance of deep consonance and rippling turbulence. It turned out to be Hill’s final performance; he died just a few weeks later.

Somewhere there’s high-quality video of the Trinity Church concert. (It streamed live, and the archive stayed up for a while. I watched it several more times after filing my review.) In the absence of that document, Time Lines will stand as the definitive late text of Hill’s career. I’m not saying it’s a consolation prize, though consolation is surely some part of its lasting charm.

Purchase Time Lines on Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Dave Douglas Quintet, 'Meaning and Mystery' (2006)

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.)

Dave Douglas, the staggeringly productive trumpeter and composer, has played a vital role in the jazz ecology of the last 25 years. There was never any doubt that he’d be a prominent figure in Playing Changes, not only for the quality and variety of his musical output but also for the dust-clouds of invective and conflict kicked up around him, much to his vexed bemusement.

The third chapter of the book, “Uptown Downtown,” is a chronicle of that era, with Douglas as a central character. He crops up first as a member of John Zorn’s Masada and Don Byron’s klezmer project, two loosely synchronous bands bursting out of the early-’90s Knitting Factory scene. (I first took note of Douglas via Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which I owned on cassette in 1992.)

The chapter goes on to trace Douglas’ emergence as a solo artist, on albums including Parallel Worlds, his debut, and In Our Lifetime, a breakthrough tribute to Booker Little. His Tiny Bell Trio, featuring Brad Shepik on guitar and Jim Black on drums, receives a fond remembrance; so too does his Sanctuary project, blending free-improv protocols with real-time electronics. And I propose that the Dave Douglas Quartet — with Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, James Genus on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums — was crucial to mainstreaming Douglas’ image, among a broader jazz populace:

By this point, most jazz listeners of a left-leaning disposition were already paying close attention to Douglas, compelled both by his proliferation of ideas and by the formal rigor with which he explored them. But it was something else to hear him in the context of a swinging acoustic quartet, going toe-to-toe with one of the most technically sound saxophonists in a centrist modern-jazz vein.


By 2001, the quartet had expanded to a quintet with the addition of Uri Caine, on acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos (and Clarence Penn had replaced Perowsky on drums). I saw this band at The Village Vanguard, where it got a glowing review from Ben Ratliff, who pronounced that it “seemed both the most accessible of his bands for those with a rough understanding of the plot of jazz history and — surprise — the freest.”

Douglas has kept the quintet format in his steady rotation since then, and it’s an album by his Quintet 2.0, Meaning and Mystery, that I selected for the 129 Essential Albums list. This band featured the same rhythm section (Caine, Genus and Penn) but with a different tenor out front: Donny McCaslin, whose playing inhabits the same plane as Potter, with a bit more looseness and snap in his phrasing.

Meaning and Mystery is a terrific album, full of rhythmic drive and unmistakable group cohesion. (Its closing track is called “The Team,” which feels about right.) The Douglas-McCaslin hookup is a dream, and the tunes capture an essential flexibility and modernity in Douglas’ compositional style. Listen to the balance of humor and purpose in this track, whose title riffs on an iconic Ornette Coleman motto:

Meaning and Mystery was also a key early release on Douglas’ label, Greenleaf Music, which he’d started after a period on RCA Victor. When the quintet played an album-release engagement at the Jazz Standard, Douglas decided to go for broke: he recorded the entire run, and made each night’s sets available for download the following morning.

The whole corpus was eventually released as a boxed set, Live at the Jazz Standard, on 12 CDs. Comparisons with Miles Davis’ The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel are unavoidable, even welcome. Douglas later did much the same thing, in the same room, with a later iteration of his quintet, this one featuring a younger crew: saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Rudy Royston.

There’s so much more to say about Douglas — his role in establishing the Festival of New Trumpet Music is its own worthy story — but this is a blog post about an album recommendation, so I’ll end it here. Actually, one more note: several years ago I interviewed Douglas for a Q&A in JazzTimes, pegged to the 10th anniversary of Greenleaf Music. It’s a good read, for anyone thinking about the shifting ground of the marketplace, as well as the role that Douglas now fills as a mentor and advocate for younger talent.

Purchase Meaning and Mystery on Bandcamp, and peruse the Greenleaf Music store.

Ornette Coleman, 'Sound Grammar' (2006)

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.)

Ornette Coleman was 75 years old when he recorded Sound Grammar, on a concert stage in Germany in 2005. He’d been a major figure in modern jazz for the better part of a half-century, one of the small handful of people to actually alter the trajectory of the art form.

But he had also settled into a stage of relative quiet: welcoming friends to his loft in Manhattan’s garment district, for free-ranging and discursive conversation; playing music in his home studio, with an unpredictable assortment of musicians; mobilizing for the occasional concert, each one hailed as a major event. When Sound Grammar appeared in 2006, it was his first sanctioned release in a decade.


Coleman is best known, of course, for his role in liberating form: his album Free Jazz was one early rallying cry, and so was The Shape of Jazz to Come, recorded almost exactly 60 years ago (May 22, 1959). His concept of Harmolodics is more arcane, though hardly less intuitive. And while it found dual expression in his symphony, Skies of America, and his visionary funk band, Prime Time, the Harmolodic ideal is no less important to the music on Sound Grammar.

As part of the album rollout, Coleman did a smattering of interviews. I was fortunate enough to conduct one of them, for a cover story in JazzTimes. We talked on a couch in his loft for a couple of hours, and I returned on a different day to observe 90 minutes of rehearsal. As on Sound Grammar, the ensemble consisted of two bassists, with Ornette’s son Denardo on drums. (Greg Cohen was out of town, so the bassists were Al MacDowell and Tony Falanga, both Harmolodic adepts. I had seen both of them with Coleman in concert, with and without Cohen.)

Settle in with Sound Grammar, and it’s impossible not to be struck by the bristling curiosity of Coleman’s voice on alto saxophone, and the extreme flow state of his band. There’s a fondly retrospective air to the album, given the inclusion of songs like “Sleep Talking” and “Turnaround” — but in no way is this an exercise in nostalgia. In that sense it reminds me of what Wayne Shorter was up to in the same era, with the quartet that made Footprints Live! (featured at an earlier point of the 129 Essential Albums timeline).

In retrospect, it’s also hard not to think about the valedictory quality of this album. I came up in our conversations for the JazzTimes piece, and here is how I wrote about it:

There’s a fundamental tension between the surge of progress and the onward march of time. Tomorrow may be the question, but as each one arrives, you add to a stockpile of yesterdays. Though never a backward-glancing type, Coleman has been revisiting certain themes in concert-“Lonely Woman,” his best-loved composition, has become a standard encore-and describing his own work in more holistic terms, as an oeuvre.

And during my first visit to his home, he riffs extensively on the topic of death, unprovoked. At one point, when I make a point about the practical application of Sound Grammar, he responds with a quip: “When you said ‘application,’ you know what I thought of? Life insurance.” We both laugh, but then he rolls with the idea. “Let’s face it: can’t nobody be responsible when you’re gonna live and when you’re gonna die.”

“I was in Central Park yesterday listening to some people,” he says moments later, referring to a SummerStage concert featuring Asha Puthli, the classically trained Indian vocalist who appeared on his 1971 Columbia album Science Fiction, and Dewey Redman, the tenor saxophonist who made for an exceptional improvisational foil on the same recording. “It was beautiful. It sounded good.” Three weeks later, Redman would be gone, felled by liver failure at age 75.

Sound Grammar won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music, making Coleman the first jazz artist since Wynton Marsalis to receive the honor. It became another honor in a lifetime full of them, ratifying Ornette’s stature as an American modern of the highest order, alongside the likes of William Faulkner and Jasper Johns.

When Coleman died at 85, a decade after recording Sound Grammar, Ben Ratliff’s exemplary obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold. “He was seen as a native avant-gardist,” Ratliff wrote, “personifying the American independent will as much as any artist of the last century.” Because of the power of his example and the consistency of his vision, Coleman’s legacy should endure well into this century, and beyond.

Purchase Sound Grammar at Amazon or at Discogs.

Miguel Zenon, 'Jibaro' (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.)

Miguel Zenón has made one previous appearance on the 129 Essential Albums list so far — as a sideman on Melaza (2000), a vaulting, declaratory album by tenor saxophonist David Sánchez. That’s a helpful antecedent, because Jíbaro, the album that I selected to represent Zenón, is another persuasive pledge of allegiance to Puerto Rican culture and tradition.

The alto saxophonist surfaces in a chapter of Playing Changes that I titled “The Crossroads,” about new expressions of global interdependence in the music. Noting that in the early 2000s, Zenón had formed a quartet with Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and Mexican drummer Antonio Sánchez, I added the following:

Zenón spent a lot of time worshipping his music with these partners, so that by the time he began making albums, it was with a granite surety of purpose. The title of his fine 2002 debut, Looking Forward, articulated a direction, while the title of his even stronger 2004 follow-up, Ceremonial, implied a process and foundation. What changed in between was mostly his confidence as a composer and bandleader, and the endorsement of Branford Marsalis, who made Zenón one of the earliest signings to his Marsalis Music label.

He was still in his 20s when he made Jíbaro, his third album, which builds on the inland folk-troubadour traditions of Puerto Rico.


He composed the album more or less as a suite, without making a fuss about it; nevertheless, this landed as a serious artistic statement. In The New York Times, my former colleague Ben Ratliff selected Jíbaro as one of his Top 10 albums of the year, and hailed its creator as “a Puerto Rican-born jazz saxophonist and composer with an evidently enormous brain.” (It was only a few years later that Zenón became a MacArthur Fellow, receiving the so-called “genius grant.”)

Listen to the opening track of the album, “Seis Cinco,” and almost immediately you can sense the clarity of intention. Whether or not you are remotely familiar with the customs of jíbaro — let alone the technical requirements of the décima, a poetic form descended from medieval Spanish balladry — you can sense the depth of cultural understanding that Zenón brought to the table here.

Zenón has certainly continued his work as a cultural emissary and investigator, through his recording projects and in performance. Early in 2017, I called him up to talk about Típico, another excellent quartet album featuring Perdomo, Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole.

One of the insights that struck me then — so much so that I included it in Playing Changes — was Zenón’s reflection that he had to leave Puerto Rico in order to form his aesthetic relationship with its culture. “I feel that I became prouder and more in touch with my side of patriotism and nationalism, by exploring Puerto Rican-ness through music,” he said. “From the outside.”

Purchase Jíbaro from Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Cuong Vu, 'It's Mostly Residual' (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.)

Trumpeter and composer Cuong Vu was part of a small wave of Seattle musicians who hit the downtown scene in New York at the same time, in the mid-1990s, after their conservatory studies in the Boston area. Among the others in this peer group were clarinetist and saxophonist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black; they enlisted Vu in an electroacoustic band called yeahNO, alongside wizardly Icelandic bassist Skúli Sverrisson. (I wrote about Black, Speed and Sverrisson in the first entry on the 129 Essential Albums list.)

I first saw yeahNO at the Knitting Factory, circa 1997. Not long afterward, they played the inaugural show presented by Ars Nova Workshop in Philly, and I was there for that, too. What instantly captivated me about Vu’s presence in the band was the way he created depth through texture, manipulating sound as sound, rather than simply reordering a set of established trumpet protocols. I remember speaking with him around this time about his instinct as an improviser, and he pegged himself as a contrarian: when things were getting really heated on the bandstand, he liked to get quiet and smoldering; when things were turning glassy in their calm, he entrusted himself with the mantle of disruption.

You could say that Vu carried this strategy of resistance into his own albums, starting around this time. I believe it was his fourth album, Come Play With Me, that caught the attention of guitarist Pat Metheny, when he heard it on an internet radio stream. Always one to follow his ear, Metheny got in touch with Vu, and soon drafted him into the Pat Metheny Group. To those who had been following Vu since his arrival in New York, this was a somewhat surreal moment, like watching someone get called up, unexpectedly, to the major league. (I recently wrote here about The Way Up, featuring this edition of the PMG.)


Vu made It’s Mostly Residual in 2005, and in some ways the album reflects a restatement of core convictions. Like Come Play With Me, it showcases his profoundly intuitive rapport with electric bassist Stomu Takeishi. They work alongside drummer Ted Poor and a marquee guitarist — not Metheny, but his contemporary and fellow searcher, Bill Frisell.

The writing is terse and insinuative, with melodic forms that are clearly designed to open up and breathe. And Frisell is hardly the only improviser here to employ electronics; Takeishi and Vu are equally deft with looping and other effects. But through it all, Vu upholds a melodic agenda. Listen to the way the title track comes into bloom; it’s outrageously beautiful, and even now it feels like a sort of magic trick.

Vu has gone on to do excellent work both as an artist and an educator: in 2010, I met up with him in Seattle, to which he’d returned, for a story about that city’s jazz ecology. He’s the chair of jazz studies at the University of Washington, where his students have included some sharp young rule-breakers. And he has made some find subsequent albums — including Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny (2016) and Change in the Air, again with Frisell (2018).

Purchase It’s Mostly Residual on Bandcamp, or stream it on Spotify.

Jenny Scheinman, '12 Songs' (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.)


Jenny Scheinman was hardly fresh off the boxcar when she released 12 Songs, in the fall of 2005. A violinist and composer known for bringing an air of rusticity to the most modern settings, she was in her early 30s, with an already-strong track record behind Bill Frisell and others; this was the fourth album under her name.

For many observers, though, 12 Songs represented a breakthrough. Scheinman made the album with a septet that included Frisell and longtime compadre Ron Miles on cornet, as well as keyboardist and accordionist Rachelle Garniez, clarinetist Doug Wieselman and others. The writing is spare, yet full of emotional color; it feels lived-in, unguarded. Its affinities with Frisell’s music are obvious — listen back as far as This Land, from 1994 — but don’t feel at all calculated. This is the music that Scheinman was truly feeling, and it pointed the way forward for her in many respects.

A few years later, when Scheinman was officially branching out as a singer-songwriter, I wrote a profile for the NY Times, speaking with her about a distinctly rural childhood along the California coast. For the piece, I also solicited some thoughts from Frisell, who had this to say:

A song isn’t just a sort of mathematical puzzle for her; it has a real emotional meaning. She can play out or free or whatever, but you always hear that center, that melody thing, which is so important.

You hear that quality on 12 Songs, just as you do on Scheinman’s more recent musical output, including Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, a film-and-music presentation that I was fortunate enough to see at the 2018 Big Ears Festival. She is currently on tour with drummer Allison Miller, not only in Miller’s band Boom Tic Boom but also in a jointly led project called Parlour Game. Her artistry runs like a clear beam through whatever setting; for me, 12 Songs is where it first came into perfect focus.

Purchase 12 Songs at Cryptogramophone, or stream it at Apple Music or Spotify.

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."


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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.

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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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.