Ahmad Jamal, 'In Search of Momentum' (2003)

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.)


Ahmad Jamal might seem, at first glance, like an odd figure to celebrate when talking about jazz in our time. He began releasing albums as a leader in the early 1950s, and those recordings — none more celebrated than At the Pershing: But Not For Me, from '58 — embody an epitome of midcentury American cool. Miles Davis instructed his pianists, notably Red Garland, to emulate Jamal. His elegant use of space in the music was a major influence in the postwar era.

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You probably know all of that already. But it's possible that you have overlooked the extent to which Jamal remained a vital force into the 2000s and beyond. Just last year he released a concert album, Marseille, that seemed to defy time and all logic. He turns 88 this summer, and shows few signs of slowing down.

In Search of Momentum, released in 2003, was the first great album Jamal released in this century. I do mean "great," in that it's a glorious illustration of Jamal's late style, in a trio that features James Cammack on bass and the incomparable Idris Muhammad on drums. (Cammack is still a member of Jamal's crew; Muhammad died in 2014.) 

Ben Ratliff was reviewing another Jamal album from this period when he wrote the following, worth citing here nonetheless: "Jamal likes to play gentle, perfumed melodies as single notes in the high register of the keyboard. But then he balances them with darker, authoritative ringing tones from the lower end; he drawls and withdraws almost to the point of disappearing, then returns like a bulldozer, playing in a jacked-up, dislocating style. His music can be pushy and imperious, and he doesn't parse down to a recognizable aesthetic profile."

You'll get a sense of that in this version of "Where Are You," a songbook standard. Jamal arranges the tune in a jaunty two-step, but his moves from moment to moment are unpredictable; he sounds very much like a master improviser who knows his lane, but refuses to succumb to any form of complacency. 

Purchase In Search of Momentum at Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Dave Holland Quintet, 'Extended Play: Live at Birdland' (2003)

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.)


Bassist Dave Holland came of age, more or less, in the loose-fitting Miles Davis bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s, so he has long understood Miles’ modus operandi as a bandleader: corral the finest, most open-minded musicians into a cohesive unit and let the juices flow. Listening to the music from that franchise, you could hear the distinctive imprint of Wayne Shorter or John McLaughlin or Keith Jarrett, but you always knew, unequivocally, that what you were getting was Miles.

The same has held true with Holland’s own bands — none more clearly than the dynamic band he led from the late '90s into the 2000s. The Dave Holland Quintet, as it was simply known, featured Chris Potter on saxophones, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibraphone and either Billy Kilson or Nate Smith on drums. In a certain sense it recalled earlier Holland ensembles, like a late-'80s quintet that included saxophonist Steve Coleman. 

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But the turn-of-the-century quintet had its own stride and metabolism, and for a handful of years it loomed as one of the most reliable thrill rides in small-group jazz. The instrumentation allowed Holland to draw on all of his trademarks as a composer-bandleader: sinewy athleticism, jostling counterpoint, high contrast in color and timbre. Eubanks and Potter contributed tunes as well, mostly hewing to this style. And while the band released several studio albums worth hearing, beginning in 1998 with Points of View, I don't think there's a substitute for how it sounded on the bandstand. Which means, almost by definition, that the double album Live at Birdland is the essential document, a chronicle of fierce ignition and extravagant intuition. 

Among other things, the album reveals just how much trust Holland places in his bandmates. Listen here to "Prime Directive," which was the title track for a previous studio release. It's the sort of airtight, aerodynamic postbop composition that makes you think of good industrial design. But in this live version, it also features a long stretch where the rhythm section drops out, leaving Potter and Eubanks to improvise in tandem, with all the intricate dialogic entanglement of an argument in a Robert Altman film. Later there comes an excellent Nelson solo, and a groove-centric drum display by Kilson. As the kids say, "So killin', man."

Purchase Extended Play: Live at Birdland at Amazon, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Keith Jarrett / Gary Peacock / Jack DeJohnette, 'Always Let Me Go: Live in Tokyo' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Keith Jarrett looms large in any discussion of jazz over the last 45 years. To track his early movements — from the peace-and-love rhapsodies of the Charles Lloyd Quartet to the post-Woodstock fire of Miles Davis to the inward-seeking clarity of Facing You — is to present a complicated portrait of a culture in transition.

Then of course, there's The Köln Concert, which established a popular framework for the existential solo piano expedition. I've seen a handful of Jarrett concerts that inhabit a similar plane, including the one that yielded The Carnegie Hall Concert, about a dozen years ago.

When I went about the difficult task of cherry-picking one Jarrett album from the 2000s on, I briefly considered a solo effort. I also thought about Jasmine, his beautifully muted set of duos with bassist Charlie Haden. But it felt more important to acknowledge the momentous tenure of his trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

If you know this group at all, you probably know it as the Standards Trio — and for most of its 30-year reign, that was an accurate description. Jarrett and his crew illuminated songbook ballads, bebop warhorses and other pieces from the common repertory. If you were to pick an emblematic album, you'd maybe go with Whisper Not or My Foolish Heart or, for an absorbing longitudinal study, the 6-CD boxed set recorded at the Blue Note in 1994.

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But I decided to tack in another direction, choosing Always Let Me Go, recorded in Tokyo in 2001, and released as a double album the following year. Jarrett had already delivered a curveball with Inside Out, the first album of completely improvised material by the trio in an eon. This follow-up carries that practice to its logical next step — proving not only that the language of the band went far deeper than its songbook, but also that improvisers of this caliber can create formal coherence out of true spontaneous interplay.

In DownBeat, Thomas Conrad gave the album five stars, a rating typically reserved for a masterpiece. Reviewing for JazzTimes, Mike Quinn acknowledged that "out" was the prevailing ethos of the set. "But what is most captivating about this virtuosic tour de force," he added, "is the way this trio can, on a dime, turn outside in, pulling a melody and structure from thin air, usually at just the right moment, bringing everything back to earth with a bit of bluesy funk, a bit of wistful romanticism, a slice of bop or swing."

Earlier this year, ECM released After the Fall, a far more swinging affair recorded a few years earlier, in 1998. Because the Standards Trio disbanded several years ago, this release served as a bittersweet postscript as well as a time capsule; I wrote about it here. What's remarkable about the Standards Trio is that it could contain so many realms without the slightest hint of strain. Here, from Always Let Me Go, is "Tsunami," which illustrates the point.

Purchase Always Let Me Go on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

Fred Hersch Trio, 'Live at the Village Vanguard' (2003)

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.)


Fred Hersch already had a lot of mileage in his rearview when he recorded Live at the Village Vanguard, in the spring of 2002. An acutely intelligent pianist who hit the ground running in the '70s, he put in serious apprenticeship hours with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and others. But a turn-of-the-century run of gleaming songbook albums (on Nonesuch) had begun to make him feel pigeonholed. He came to the Vanguard ready to throw down.

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The gig introduced a terrific new trio, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. Two weeks later, I interviewed Hersch at his loft in SoHo for a profile in JazzTimes. "I felt like: ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” he told me. “Kind of a no-muss, no-fuss, just capture what we do. A record that’s about the playing — but also hopefully, if it all comes out right, when you put it on you really feel like you’re there. You should feel like you’re sitting two tables back, just digging the band. I love that.”

Hersch had another album in the works when we spoke: Leaves of Grass, a brilliantly realized suite inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with vocals by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Last fall I found myself back in the SoHo loft interviewing Hersch about this very suite, for an episode of Jazz Night in America. We also talked about ood Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, the memoir that Hersch had just published, to deserving acclaim.

But back to Live at the Village Vanguard. I could just as easily selected a more recent album by Hersch — say, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, which chronicles his current trio, featuring John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. (The same trio released another fabulous effort, Live in Europe, this year.) For that matter, I could have chosen Leaves of Grass

One reason I didn't: I see the 2003 Vanguard album as pivotal, and will confess to a certain sentimental attachment. There are no fewer than six Hersch originals on the album, and this was noteworthy at the time: he was really just beginning to come into his own in that respect. Listen to "Endless Stars," a flowing ballad in straight-eighth time, and you hear the full measure of Hersch's gift for melodic construction, and for a thematic development that feels effortless. 

Besides which, this is a song, in the fullest sense. In fact, it was only a year later that Norma Winstone released a version with her lyrics, calling it simply "Stars." (Hersch is her partner throughout the album, called Songs & Lullabies.) I'm including that here, too.

 

Purchase Live at the Village Vanguard at Amazon or Discogs.

Jane Ira Bloom, 'Chasing Paint: Jane Ira Bloom Meets Jackson Pollock' (2003)

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.)


Jane Ira Bloom is a soprano saxophonist whose track record of excellence goes back more than 40 years. She isn't a doubler, a tenor player who also plays the straight horn; the soprano is her chosen instrument, and she has remained faithful to its sonic properties.

Her sound on the horn is round and clear, and she takes every advantage of the possibilities its form presents. She likes to incorporate a sort of Doppler effect into her improvising; you can hear her do this at times on the title track to Chasing Paint, below. It also factored into her trio album Early Americans, which earned her (and engineer Jim Anderson) the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album.

Bloom has also been at the forefront of contemporary improvisers engaging with a theme. Her most recent album is Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson; she has done commissioned work for NASA. Chasing Paint is a sterling example of her instinct for interdisciplinary connection; Bloom drew inspiration both from the formal properties of Jackson Pollock's canvases and the kinetic nature of his process. She urged her band to think as if they were painting with sound, and everyone seemed to grasp the idea. (In the track below, pay special attention to Fred Hersch, especially in the free-tempo elaboration from around 1:45 through the solo that begins at 3:10.)

I wanted to tap into how it felt to hear this music fresh, and stumbled across my review of the album in JazzTimes, from July 2003. 

Jane Ira Bloom, Chasing Paint

Among the many misperceptions about abstract expressionist icon Jackson Pollock is the assumption that his work is an undisciplined expression of id. It’s probably true that Pollock’s painterly oeuvre, imbued with dramatic movement, owes a debt to the power of catharsis. But to stop there is to ignore its serious compositional features and the rigors that led to its inception.

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It’s doubtful that anyone will make the same mistake with Chasing Paint, Jane Ira Bloom’s latest disc. Funded by a fellowship from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Jazz Ensembles Project, the album conveys a meticulous air even as it heeds jazz’s freer impulses.

Bloom’s soprano saxophone is characteristically fleet and full-toned, capturing all the angular caprice of a brush on canvas. Matching her at every stroke are pianist Fred Hersch (a preternaturally intuitive partner for the better part of two decades) and the incomparable rhythm team of bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Bobby Previte (Bloom’s compatriots since the ’70s and ’90s, respectively). Altogether, the quartet achieves synergy of the highest order and a familiarity that never slips into complacence.

Because Bloom originally envisioned this project as a suite, it makes sense that her compositions add up to a variegated whole. The disc ranges from bright-eyed swing (“Unexpected Light”) to elegiac balladry (“On Seeing JP”) to halting abstraction (“Alchemy”). At times, Bloom’s trademark electronic effects manage to evoke a drip painting’s network of color and line. Yet even at its most elliptical, this album remains wholly approachable. Like a Pollock canvas, it needn’t be explained to be understood.

Chasing Paint can be purchased on Amazon, or streamed on Spotify or Apple Music.

Terence Blanchard, 'Bounce' (2003)

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.)


Terence Blanchard began this century on one trajectory and took a smart, surprising turn toward another. A former Young Lion trumpet paragon who'd become known for his contributions to the filmography of Spike Lee, Blanchard projected an image of luxurious comfort in his solo career at the dawn of the 2000s. 

Gary Giddins, writing in '01, observed that he "is one of the most distinctive trumpet players of his generation, but his trademark, a purring glissando, has become fussy and predictable." Giddins was writing in the Village Voice about a silky Blanchard album called Let's Get Lost, which featured vocal turns by Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Jane Monheit and Diana Krall. (Ben Ratliff, taking a somewhat skeptical view of this all-star effort, hailed the album in The New York Times as "an example of jazz marketing at its most finely calibrated.") It seemed clear that Blanchard could keep cruising in this mode for a while.

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But Bounce, his debut for Blue Note, suggested something else entirely: a postmillennial update of the hard-boppish tradition on which Blanchard had cut his teeth, and a showcase for some excellent younger talent. Along with saxophonist Brice Winston and drummer Eric Harland, who'd both appeared on Let's Get Lost, this album introduced several important new voices: guitarist Lionel Loueke, a maverick from Benin; pianist Aaron Parks, a prodigy from Seattle; and bassist Brandon Owens, a multi-phase talent from Los Angeles. (Robert Glasper, 24 at the time of the sessions, joined this ensemble as an accent, playing organ and some piano.)

Bounce includes a cooled-out take on "Footprints," the Wayne Shorter classic, as well as a pugnacious burner called "Fred Brown." But what set it apart — marking it as an album not only of its time but also pointing toward the near horizon — were the original compositions, including one apiece by Parks, Harland and Owens. Listen to these themes, and the way the musicians move through them, and you can hear a whole set of new protocols locking into place.

Blanchard, already a garlanded composer, brought some memorable new tunes to the table himself. "Passionate Courage" has all the hallmarks of his style, from a brooding rhythmic bed to an intuitive yet unexpected harmonic turn to a shapely melodic line. It's a calmly intrepid theme, which just about sets the tone for much of what Blanchard would accomplish in the next decade. Which is really saying something.

Purchase Bounce on Amazon, or stream it on Apple Music or Spotify.

David Binney, 'South' (2003)

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.)


My earliest recollection of seeing alto saxophonist David Binney is from 1998 or so, just after I moved to New York. He was playing at The Internet Café, a narrow, sweaty room in the East Village that had about as much cachet and charm as the name would suggest.

Binney was there with a band called Lan Xang, which he formed with tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. I'd admired the group's self-titled debut, released in 1997 on Binney's own label, Mythology Records. The sound of the band in close quarters — by which I mean McCaslin had the bell of his tenor in my face — was a visceral thrill, even if some others in the room were obviously there to check their email.

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I came to understand that self-determinacy is a hallmark of Binney's artistic profile, along with the compulsion to hybridize. By the early 2000s I was seeing him regularly at the 55 Bar and Cornelia Street Café, always with a terrific band combining volatile heat and a sleek feeling of lift.

One such group featured Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, Uri Caine on piano, Adam Rogers on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Brian Blade on drums. They recorded an album called South for ACT Records in 2000, though it took a few more years to see release in the United States.

The album is a hyper-articulate postbop sprint, with every member of the group functioning at his peak — and pointing in the general direction of future bands like Chris Potter's Underground and the Donny McCaslin Quartet (more on those later). Listen here for the braided, dark-hued saxophone lines, for the tidal swell of rhythm, for an inexorable forward pull at every moment, with every move. 

South is available for purchase at Amazon, or can be streamed on Spotify.

The Bad Plus, 'These Are the Vistas' (2003)

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.)


It has become all too easy to forget how radical The Bad Plus seemed circa 2003, when These Are the Vistas appeared on the all-but-phased-out jazz imprint of Columbia Records. This acoustic but high-octane trio — with Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano, David King on drums — presented a pugnacious front, not just unified in purpose but aggressively fused in its sound.

In recent months, the band has made news for its turbulent yet altogether successful transition from one social configuration to the next. Last spring, Iverson announced his intention to depart The Bad Plus, and his band mates appointed a successor, the postbop piano dynamo Orrin Evans. I delved into this story, speaking with all parties, and later helped create an episode of Jazz Night in America about it.

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None of this drama was on the known horizon when These Are the Vistas made its entrance. At the time, and for quite a while afterward, The Bad Plus was impressive in its indivisibility, and in the assertion of a nonhierarchical model for the state-of-the-art improvising piano trio.

The other thing that grabbed attention was the band's choice of repertory. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Blondie's "Heart of Glass," Squarepusher's "Flim" — these were covers reflecting a Gen X sensibility, a set of preferences true to the life experience of Anderson and King. (Iverson, an unapologetic yet largely nonjudgmental jazz and classical partisan, came to rock and electronic music relatively late.)

What was already clear on These Are the Vistas, though some observers would take a while to acknowledge it, was the audacious integrity of its original music. Each member of The Bad Plus contributed new music to its book, and some of these pieces were fantastic in their scope and execution. 

Reviewing the album for JazzTimes, I noted that the album's tour de force was "Silence is the Question," an Anderson composition that "works a small motif through successively more imploring conjugations, culminating in a riot of colors." 

"If The Bad Plus has an effect on the greater landscape of jazz," I added, "it will be through such ecstatic vistas as these."

These Are the Vistas is available on Amazon, on Spotify, or on Apple Music.

Below, find my first piece for The Village Voice — a review of The Bad Plus at the Bowery Ballroom, which solidified something about its pop-cultural reach. 

Village Voice | Sound of the City | March 23, 2004

Victory Parade

Power-piano trio takes jazz to the people—but no requests

By Nate Chinen

The dude who kept shouting for “Free Bird” doesn’t get the Bad Plus. Yes, they’re cornballs from the heartland. Yes, they’ve covered Nirvana and Neil Young. But there’s no place for irony in their rumpus room, which is littered with press clippings and spare neckties. An acoustic jazz piano trio with arena rock on the brain, this band courts chaos but never loosens its grip on the wheel.

At their first honest-to-goodness New York rock show, the Bad Plus managed to play every song but one from their new Columbia album Give. In fact, the show sounded more like the album—vast, thunderous, and cathartic—than like previous Bad Plus gigs in asymmetrical, low-ceilinged rooms. If last year’s Village Vanguard engagements were like crusaders storming the castle, this one was more a victory parade.

Partly this was due to the rapturous full house; partly it was inherent in the music. Ethan Iverson favors simple but somehow grandiloquent accents in the piano’s upper register, a trait counterbalanced by Anderson’s low-slung basslines and David King’s often brutish percussion. The net result is sweeping, epic: The Pixies’ “Velouria” came across like Squarepusher wrangling “Chariots of Fire.” Like every other song of the night, it reached a dramatic climax, with an air of triumph after great and noble struggle.

What kept that struggle engaging was how much the band is a band. Iverson played a lot of piano, but took standout solos only on Anderson’s luminous, lonesome “Neptune (Planet)” and King’s ploddingly funky “1979 Semi-Finalist.” He sounded most like a conventional piano-trio pianist on the stately new “Prehensile Dream.” He sounded least so on the inevitable first encore, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” more viscerally satisfying in person than on disc. The second encore was a goofy sing-along called “People of the World Are United.” Thing is, they meant it.

Cassandra Wilson, 'Belly of the Sun' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cecil Taylor, 'The Willisau Concert' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomasz Stanko, 'Soul of Things' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Sanchez, 'Melaza' (2000)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

Luciana Souza, 'Brazilian Duos' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Luciana Souza, visit her website

Wayne Shorter Quartet, 'Footprints Live!' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Berne, 'Science Friction' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

Ben Allison, 'Peace Pipe' (2002)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Shipp, 'New Orbit' (2001)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

John Scofield, 'Works For Me' (2001)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

Kurt Rosenwinkel, 'The Next Step' (2001)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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