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.

Playing Changes at Big Ears

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Earlier this spring I attended the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, for the first time. (It won't be my last.) There was so much to love about this experience, which was immersive and inspiring and often thrilling. I wrote about the festival for NPR Music, focusing on its heavier-than-usual contingent of jazz — veritable icons like Roscoe Mitchell and Milford Graves; mid-career explorers like Nels Cline; ascendent pacesetters like Jenny Scheinman and Jason Moran. On the final day of the fest, I saw a great big standing-room crowd go deep on the music of the Tyshawn Sorey Trio. Then I headed over to catch a bit of Rostam, who would have been headlining a cavernous space in any major city. Here he was playing to a small crowd — a lot smaller than the one that had gathered for Tyshawn. Such is the delirious upside-down reality of Big Ears.

One point I tried to make in my piece was an observation implicitly tied to Playing Changes:

Increasingly, improvising artists across the style spectrum are accessing multiple vocabularies, reconciling divergent strategies, bringing other disciplines into the frame. This coalescence was also a hallmark of last summer’s Ojai Music Festival, programmed by pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Like that inspiring event, which featured a few of the same artists, this year’s Big Ears felt right in tune with an emergent, exhilarating frontier. I see this not only as a hopeful turn in the festival’s model of inclusion but also as an indicator of present-day permissions around jazz’s state of the art.

No idea whether Big Ears will feature so many improvisers on the next edition of the festival. But it seems more than possible. Whatever happens, I'm going to do everything in my power to be there.