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Determining Dogmental Directives:
10 of Y2K’s Most Creative Jazz Releases,
As Seen from Above Here & Beyond
by Chuck Obuchowski

    By now, in fact, those of us who are jazz fans may well be engaged in a vicious war-of-words with one another over whether to recommend Ken Burns for jazz sainthood or to burn him at the stake for heresy. (Dr. Out-Hear-&-Beyond prescribes turning off your TV and resuming round-the-clock allegiance to WWUH, rather than resorting to either of those options!)
      
The following titles are some of my favorite jazz releases of the past 12 months; this does not pretend to be a definitive “best of” list, nor is it based on the popularity of these artists or their music. However, I encourage listeners to tune in to Out Here & Beyond on 91.3 FM, Tuesday, January 9, 2001, 9 a.m. until noon, to hear a sampling of the recordings which most impressed me during the course of the last year. The list that follows is arranged in alphabetical order of the artists’ names, not according to the perceived merits of each disc.

Andy Biskin Quintet: Dogmental  GM Recordings

       Clarinetist/composer Biskin admits in his liner notes, “when I take inventory of our repertory, I’m surprised at the preponderance of polkas, waltzes, marches and little tone poems over ‘pure jazz’ tunes.”
      
 Yet, it’s precisely because of this quirky mix of styles that Dogmental is such a delight. That and the fact that Biskin is working with some of the most talented inside/outside players on the current jazz scene.
      
Especially notable is the brilliant drumming of Matt Wilson, who infuses the proceedings with a healthy dose of slapstick humor. Joining their leader’s clarinet in the front line, trumpeter Ron Horton and trombonist Bruce Eidem form a horn team adept at nailing precisely written ensemble passages, and equally impressive on solo improvised excursions.

Abraham Burton-Eric McPherson Quartet: Cause and Effect   ENJA Records

       Former U-Ha Hartt School classmates Burton and McPherson have remained buddies since relocating to the Big Apple; more importantly for fans of improvised music, they’ ve continued honing the considerable skills they first demonstrated while performing together as members of the Collective Expression, under Professor Jackie McLean’s tutelage.
      
This program of six original compositions unites them with two other young firebrands: pianist James Hurt (check out his inventive Blue Note Records debut, Dark Rhythms, Mystical Grooves) and bassist Yosuke Inoue (also an integral member a group led by the aforementioned Matt Wilson). Clocking in at over an hour, Cause and Effect allows ample time for extended solo work from each man. Burton, having recently switched from alto to tenor saxophone, may sound like the heavyweight champion of the quartet, in terms of power and endurance. More significantly, however, the band displays a unity of purpose and a level of inspiration rarely found in ensembles that have been together for such a short time.       

Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble: Jo’burg Jump   Delmark Records

       A too-well-kept secret for more than 20 years, this sextet has played a key role in maintaining the vitality and the integrity of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Leader—and sole saxophonist—Dawkins has inherited the bold sound of Chi-town players from John Gilmore to Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton. His group strikes an enticing balance between accessible lyricism (“Shorter Suite”) and multi-kulti explorations (“Turtle Island Dance”).  

Andrew Hill: Dusk   Palmetto Records

       The elusive pianist/composer emerges from a lengthy recording absence with his strongest effort since his prolific output for Blue Note Records during the 1960s. Besides guesting on Greg Osby’s fine Y2K release, The Invisible Hand, Hill has also returned to the touring circuit with the sextet that joins him on this album. WWUH listeners had a rare opportunity to hear this legendary jazzman discussing his life and art during an on-air interview with yours truly June 27.
      
He has always had a knack for selecting bandmates whose distinctive musical personalities mesh with his own iconoclastic approach. On Dusk, Hill has assembled a group that ranks among his very best; each of these sidemen issued a disc under his own leadership during the past year. As an example of the terrific musicianship here, listen to Marty Ehrlich and Greg Tardy engaging in impassioned bass clarinet dialogue on “T.C.,” one of several memorial tributes to Connecticut  native Thomas Chapin which found their way onto albums in 2000.

Dave Holland Quintet: Prime Directive   ECM Records

       Dave Holland gets my vote for consummate turn-of-the-century jazzperson. He’s got it all: originality, chops, brilliant songwriting, great band...but, what really sets him apart from the crowd of talented improvisers vying for attention these days is his unfailing ability to remain innovative, while exhibiting a broad knowledge of the tradition. At this moment in history, few other jazz artists--besides David Murray and Dave Douglas--have been as successful at synthesizing past, present and future into their own body of work.
      
Holland’s previous outing, Points of View, was a fine record, but Prime Directive is superior. That’s due, in large part, to the quintet’s incessant touring between albums. Despite one personnel change (Chris Potter having replaced Steve Wilson as resident reedman), the group’s chemistry reaches new heights on this date. It’s a sad reflection on the current economics of the jazz industry that so few working bands are able to remain together long enough to attain this level of communication.
      
Many thanks to Mr. Holland for granting an interview to WWUH last April, which was broadcast on 91.3 FM a few days prior to his quintet’s exceptional performance at the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA.

Donny McCaslin: Seen from Above   Arabesque Recordings

       Just might be the sleeper of the year. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin has established a reputation as first-call sideman during his dozen years of Big Apple residency. The California native has graced many straight-ahead, Afro-Cuban and fusion projects with his exuberant playing, which is clearly inspired by Michael Brecker’s style. Recently, however, McCaslin has begun devoting more energy to developing his own artistic vision. Seen from Above presents listeners with the finest fruits of those labors to date.
      
Accompanied by three forward-thinking improvisers—guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Jim Black—the saxist offers eight compelling originals, plus a unique reworking of the Kurt Weill standard, “September Song.” McCaslin and Colley are also members of an even-more free-spirited quartet known as Lan Xang, which released its intriguing sophomore effort this past year for the Naxos Jazz label.  

David Murray Octet: Plays Trane   Justin Time Records

       Joe Lovano gets more ink these days, but don’t let that fool you...David Murray is still the baddest outside/in tenor man around! Since 1980, Murray’s brave forays toward reconciling the avant-garde with its jazz heritage have expanded the sonic possibilities available to mainstream players, including Lovano.
      
The Murray Octet remains a vibrant improvising outfit after over 20 years together. D.D. Jackson’s piano magic is a welcome addition to the present roster ; octet veterans James Spaulding (alto sax, flute) and Craig Harris (trombone) also make outstanding contributions to the ensemble’s long-overdue Coltrane salute.  (See July 2000 WWUH program guide for an in-depth review.)                         

Paul Nash/Manhattan New Music Project: The Soul of Grace   Soul Note

       One moment, a saxophone whispers above the gentle ripple of brass harmonies; the next, foreboding martial drumbeats shatter that pastoral mood. Bass clarinet and trombone leap forth with sinister growls, while Nash’s snarling guitar crouches nearby, poised for attack, just around the next stanza. But fear not, Jack Walrath’s clarion call will be blowin’ the blues away within minutes!
      
And so it goes throughout The Soul of Grace, each composition in essence a mini-suite, full of shifting moods and textures. Nash, founder of the decade-old New Music Project, deserves a place among the most innovative jazz composer/arrangers of recent times: Gil Evans, George Russell and Carla Bley.

NOJO with Don Byron: You Are Here   Koch Jazz

       From the sublime to the ridiculous, and back again—this fun-loving Canadian big band takes us on a rollicking ride through James-Brown soul, Phillip-Glass minimalism and Robert-Johnson blues, with oddball detours to the carnival, the comedy club and the conservatory. In essence, You Are Here is a wondrous travelogue of 20th century musical trends, filtered through colorful jazz sensibilities.
      
Co-leaders Paul Neufeld (keyboards) and Michael Occhipinti (guitars) alternate composing duties for their Jazz Orchestra. Guest clarinetist Don Byron further enhances the proceedings with his distinctive improvisations. Byron’s own recent release, A Fine Line, was a wildly-eclectic affair that deconstructed compositions by everyone from Roy Orbison to Frederic Chopin...demonstrating why his inclusion on You Are Here  is such a stroke of brilliance.  

Cuong Vu: Bound   OmniTone Inc.

       If you consider yourself a jazz purist, you’re bound to dislike this one; however, if you ascribe to the theory that the best jazz embodies “the sound of surprise,” then it’s time to get Bound !  Listen carefully, and listen often...you’ll be rewarded with highly-charged improvising, dramatic juxtapositions of electro- and acoustic sounds, and telepathic quartet interplay...what Ornette Coleman might consider “the shape of jazz to come.”
      
I first heard this Vietnamese-born trumpeter several years ago in one of Bobby Previte’s envelope-pushing ensembles. The promise he exhibited on that session is fulfilled here, with Vu finally receiving free reign to explore his own musical concepts and compositions. Those concepts are broad enough to encompass both the edgy pop of the title track (featuring a surprisingly effective vocal by Vu) and the brooding, post-modern classical textures of “The Drift.”  
      
The trumpeter’s “bound”mates share his enthusiasm for sonic adventures. Jamie Saft approaches the various components of his keyboard arsenal with equal fervor and skill; Stomu Takeishi deftly mines the percussive potential of his electric bass; Jim Black’s renegade rhythms make him drummer-of-choice for many bandleaders on the current “downtown” music scene. All four have performed together in various contexts, and their compatibility proves invaluable here, as they navigate the jagged edges and stylistic twists that punctuate these pieces.
 

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Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2001

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