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Meditations on Skypieces at the Crossroads
Favorite Recordings of 1998
by Chuck Obuchowski

    They were back again this past year--those doomsayers who step forth every so often to proclaim the imminent death of jazz. And what "proof" did they present us with this time around? Sales of jazz releases supposedly dropped to a mere 2.9 percent of all recordings sold in the US. What this assertion really amounts to is a lot of bellyaching by major corporations who have a hard time acknowledging that their market share has been drastically cut by independents, foreign companies and self-released projects. Fact is, the number of jazz recordings released each year continues to grow, jazz is being taught in more schools than ever before, and the popularity of jazz festivals worldwide is unprecedented. And, with the current proliferation of neo-swing and ska-jazz--plus the recent influence of jazz upon worldbeat and hip-hop music’s --we can anticipate even greater worldwide appreciation for this American-born artform.
    The following is a list of the jazz recordings which most impressed me during the last 12 months. They are arranged in alphabetical order, not according to their perceived merits.

MOSE ALLISON: GIMCRACKS AND GEWGAWS Blue Note Records

    Allison’s wry observations on American life are as poignant as ever on his latest album. Now 71, the Mississippi-born pianist/vocalist serves up a dozen new blues-drenched originals, plus an old favorite, and a distinctive treatment of "St. Louis Blues." He’s accompanied by an outstanding quartet, three of whom issued strong albums of their own this year: young saxman Mark Shim, drummer Paul Motian and guitarist Russell Malone.

PATRICIA BARBER: MODERNCOOL Premonition Records

    Singer and pianist Barber has been Chicago’s best-kept jazz secret for too long now...nice to see her finally receiving the kind of recognition she’s deserved since she began her recording career a decade ago.
    For Moderncool, she has augmented her trio with Dave Douglas, one of the most original--and most recorded--trumpeters in jazz. Whether dramatically reconfiguring a rock classic like "Light My Fire" as a torch song (no pun intended!), or conceiving mesmerizing instrumental tapestries like "Constantinople", this woman continues to pave new musical paths for her listeners. Her artistic vision is broad enough to encompass e.e. cummings, hip hop beats and acapella gospel choruses. Sounds preposterous on paper, but hearing is believing!

THOMAS CHAPIN TRIO: SKYPIECE Knitting Factory Records

    It is impossible for me to listen objectively to this CD in the wake of Chapin’s passing, especially since I had known him since we were kids growing up in Manchester, CT. Still, it’s safe to say that if he had written nothing else during his life, the sublime beauty of the title selection--and the way it is executed by his trio--would be enough to earn him a place of honor in jazz history. Fact is, that tune represents only one facet of this man’s prodigious talents. Many others are on display here--from the unbridled passion of an alto feature like "Change 2 Tyres" to "Just Now", an ethereal wood flute improvisation. The CD also contains three lovely photographs taken by Chapin, revealing yet another dimension of his artistry.
    Thomas Chapin also guested on two fine 1998 releases by Japanese pianist Masako Kano, Breakthrew (Jazz Focus) and Watch Out (Knitting Factory).

AVISHAI COHEN: ADAMA Stretch Records

    The Israeli-born bassist offers a scintillating mix of Middle Eastern-influenced originals and fresh approaches to the jazz mainstream. Cohen’s band features some of his colleagues from Chick Corea’s Origin, including Hartford-based trombonist Steve Davis, whose playing shines throughout. Three cuts are enhanced by the exotic sound of the oud, a North African stringed instrument. Young piano phenoms Brad Mehldau (a West Hartford native) and Danilo Perez also turn in strong guest appearances.

ROBERT DICK: JAZZ STANDARDS ON MARS Enja

    No, this is not a tribute to the Pathfinder spacecraft; rather, flutist Dick presents amazing reinvention’s of "standards" from the pens of Coltrane, Shorter, Dolphy, Ornette, even Jimi Hendrix.
    Robert Dick is known primarily in contemporary classical circles, but a Hendrix tribute he recorded for New World Records awhile back brought him to the attention of jazz fans. Here he proves himself a skilled improviser and bandleader. Also deserving of credit is arranger Dave Soldier, whose own group has reveled in genre-hopping for at least a decade. The Soldier String Quartet, particularly violinist Regina Carter, add a great deal to the proceedings. Don’t expect polite tea-room music: one listen to "Machine Gun" and you’ll understand that these folks are into busting through convention. If this really is what jazz standards on Mars sound like, I’ll be hitching a ride on the next space probe to the red planet!

MARTY EHRLICH & BEN GOLDBERG: LIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS Songlines Recordings

    Technically, this is a ‘97 release, but, given the distribution problems which plague so many independent labels, Light did not reach most radio stations and retail outlets until this year. And it’s far too wonderful a date to allow to slip between the cracks.
    Not only are these two clarinetists in the upper echelon of contemporary improvisers, they are both outstanding composers as well. Hence, these quartet sides never sound like a mere blowing session; even at their loosest, a sense of structure pervades, giving depth to each of the nine performances.

DAVID LIEBMAN ENSEMBLE: COLTRANE’S MEDITATIONS Arkadia Jazz

    "There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at...but to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror." --- John Coltrane, as told to Nat Hentoff, following sessions for Meditations, 1965.
     The brilliance of this 30th anniversary concert interpretation of Coltrane’s oft-maligned suite is that it takes the above quotation to heart, allowing each of the nine participants to engage in personal soul-searching. Liebman’s wife, oboe player Caris Visentin, is responsible for the arrangements; his working quintet is bolstered by the addition of very special guests: Billy Hart, Cecil McBee and Tiger Okoshi.
    Saxophonist Liebman, early on in his career, was accused of being a Coltrane imitator. Now, a seasoned artist who long ago found his own sound, he reconfirms his mentor’s genius, while simultaneously creating new dimensions and directions from the source material...a challenging but rewarding listening experience.

MARIE McAULIFFE’S ARKSEXTET Koch Jazz

    No question about it--this is the sleeper of the year. And while I may have resorted to cliché terminology with that phrase, rest assured that McAuliffe never does!
    These compositions, all penned by the piano-playing leader, reveal a singular approach to jazz writing, but one that never sounds stilted or academic. Some credit must go to McAuliffe’s bandmates, who really bring these pieces to life, both in group passages and solos.
    There’s a hint of Monk here, and certainly some debt to European improvising ensembles, but ultimately Arksextet stands as a unique, eloquent musical adventure.

DAVID MURRAY: CREOLE JustinTime Records

    The captivating rhythms of Guadelope provide primary inspiration for Murray’s latest outing. Backed by American drum master Billy Hart and several Caribbean percussionists, the reedman sounds more inspired than he has for years. His group also includes flutist James Newton and Don Pullen’s piano protégé D.D. Jackson, as well as Guadelope native guitarist Gerard Lockel, who appears on two envelope-pushing duets with the leader. And, surprising though it may be for a David Murray session, three engaging vocal tracks are featured, further imbuing the proceedings with Island spices.

MATT WILSON: GOING ONCE, GOING TWICE Palmetto Records

    Right from the start--"Searchlight"--you know you’re in for a treat. Take equal parts of Ravel’s "Bolero" and a Moroccan street band, throw in a dash of good old-fashioned R&B, and serve with some red-hot saxophone improvisations...Voila...a delightful sound soufflé, courtesy of drummer Matt & company!
    Wilson’s second CD as a leader is significant because he has assembled sympathetic progressively-inclined players to form that rarest of jazz commodities: "the working band". Reedmen Andrew D’Angelo and Joel Frahm (the latter another member of the West Hartford jazz mafia) and bassist Yosuke Inoue mesh perfectly. And you won’t soon forget the title selection, which links an auctioneer’s rhythmic calling to the scat vocal tradition.

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 1999

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