The Best of 2009, Part 5: Whack Jazz

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by S. Victor Aaron

There’s jazz and and there’s whack jazz, that label I assign to jazz that is unrestrained, unconventional and sometimes, rude. The kind of jazz that you wouldn’t play at any party, but boy, they sure are fun to listen to when you’re really engaged to the music. The practitioners of this most misunderstood of art forms are a rare group of individuals for whom I have the greatest admiration for. As one of them once confided to me “I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon” from playing this music. More than perhaps any other kind of musical artisan, they do this purely for the love of it, and as long as the rent is paid, the groceries are covered and there is attire and equipment with which to make the gigs, life has fulfillment. Fans of this music had much fulfillment in 2009, too, as this year produced much to be fulfilled with. Maybe the choicest records weren’t always easy to spot, but hey, this list should help you with that, right?

The only hard part here was deciding which album gets the nod for the best of the bitchin’ batch. It was very tough, for instance, to not select one of the trio of records from the Delmark label I covered back in July. Duck Baker (pictured above) came out with not one, but two nice ones in 2009. Wadada Leo Smith issued a grand statement toward the end of the year. And then there’s the welcome return of Henry Threadgill. There’s one I keep coming back to, though…

Best CD Of The Batch: Tom Abbs & Frequency Response – Lost & Found

In choosing the best whack jazz record, I believe you can’t really go by instrumental prowess, because let’s face it, all of these guys can play at the highest levels. The ones that can also conjure up sharp reactions in the listener’s mind that forces them to process what they heard and not be a passive listener are the kind of whack jazz records that does its job the best. That’s just the kind of primal sounds one hears coming from Tom Abbs’ Lost & Found. It socks you in the sonar solar flexes and just when you think you’ve figured it out, Abbs & Co. mixes it up with a flurry of jagged jabs to the harmonics. The spontaneity of these 18 tracks are compacted in short, intense spurts of expressive passages that rarely go longer than three minutes. That was by design, according to the bassist/cellist leader, who also picked up a tuba at times. Accompanied by saxophonist/flautist Brian Settles, violinist Jean Cook and drummer Chad Taylor, the four get out whatever alien sound is needed to give Abb’s compositions character and just the right mood. From the Alyer-isms found on “Lost” to the afro-centric grooves found on “Found,” Lost & Found is brimming with more ideas than a Mensa brainstorming session.

Back when I reviewed this record six months ago, I was already thinking that it would end up in this spot: “I get the feeling that Lost And Found is going to be one of the more creative and standout free jazz records of the year.” And even though I’ve come across plenty of great avant garde jazz records since then, no one has struck that sweet spot more directly than Tom Abbs.

Best Song Of The Batch: The Dave Fox Group Featuring Bruce Eisenbeil – “Of All The Tapas Bars In the World…”

The beauty in this song lies not in the melody or rhythm, because frankly, there’s little song structure or timekeeping to be found here. It flows freely and frantically in the time-honored spirit of improvised music. What sets it apart is the way Fox and Eisenbeil form tonalities that are rooted in late-sixties hard psychedelic rock much more than anything you’d find from acoustic free jazz. Fox starts out playing a Hohner Clavinet that’s worlds apart from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunter days and later on, as I wrote in the review, “Eisenbeil coaxes nefarious acid-blues fuzz tones from his axe as Fox’s swirling Fender Rhodes lurks in the background. Combine that with Pat Lawrence and Jon Marc Ryan Dale playing unrestrained to time, and the scene unfolds like Sonny Sharrock fronting Pink Floyd hopped up on amphetamines.”

It’s this natural linking of two seemingly opposed styles that offer evidence that even today, music offer endless possibilities. For both engaging listens and cool song titles.

Best Of The Rest:

SearchToday Is Tomorrow: Ornette told them “sounds like you guys are on the case.”
Jeff Albert Quartet Similar In The Opposite Way: A divinely lively combination of New Orleans funk and Chicago out jazz.
Jessica Lurie EnsembleShop Of Wild Dreams
: No matter what style or instrument Lurie throws into the mix, it all seems to work.
The Tiptons Sax Quartet Laws Of Motion: These girls make music with four saxophones that’s so fun and zany, it’s probably outlawed.
Corey Wilkes & Abstrakt PulseCries From Tha Ghetto: Wilkes points to the future of Chicago avant garde jazz as he respects its past.
Tom Hamilton/Bruce EisenbeilShadow Machine: Two musical revolutionaries test the limits of sonorities together.
The Dave Fox GroupHome Again: Just as guest Eisenbeil brings the guitar to places it has rarely ventured, so has Fox takes his keyboards to unfamiliar, far out lands.
Duck BakerEverything That Rises Must Converge: Original whack jazz, the fingerstyle guitar way.
Duck BakerThe Ducks Palace: Duck variously teams up with John Zorn, Cyro Baptista, Roswell Rudd and the late Derek Bailey for some unforgettable performances.
Matt WilsonThat’s Gotta Leave A Mark
: Sometimes it goes with the grain and sometimes it goes against it. I like it both ways.
Quartet OffensiveCarnivore: Beautifully bent music from Baltimore.
Nicole MitchellRenegades: Mitchell’s Black Earth Strings stands out as a renegade ensemble in a music scene full them.
Josh BermanOld Idea: Playing a cornet in jazz is an old idea, but Berman takes it to new places.
Rob Mazurek QuintetSound Is: Mazurek is a master at integrating disparate sonorities into a unified melody.
Jason Adasiewicz’s RolldownVarmint
: Adasiewicz was a key player on the prior two albums above and not surprisingly, he leads as well as he follows.
Fred AndersonStaying In The Game: At 80 years old, Anderson is not only still in the game, he’s winning the game big.
Warren Smith and the Composer’s Workshop EnsembleOld News Borrowed Blues: Loose and spontaneous, Smith’s orchestra is a big band that swings with attitude.
Miroslav VitousRemembering Weather Report: This isn’t a fusion record and there aren’t even any WR songs on it, but Vitous perfectly captured the freewheeling spirit of this seminal band’s early days.
Wadada Leo SmithSpiritual Dimensions: Two distinct sides of the restless Smith, but there are no B sides on this double-CD.
Joe MorrisColorfield: Veteran experimental guitarist Morris leads this bassless trio down many interesting paths.
The OthertetThe Othertet: Morris switches over to bass in this freewheeling two-horn quintet anchored by the exotic Ghanan drummer Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng.
Timucin Sahn QuartetBafa: Sahn brings Hendrix’s ideas of articulation to highly progressive jazz.
Henry Threadgill’s ZooidThis Brings Us To, Vol. 1: One of the greatest living avant garde composers is back, with a vengeance.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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