The Best of 2010, Part 4: Mainstream And Modern Jazz

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Many relative newcomers like Sarah Wilson have brought a breath of fresh air to jazz this year.

by Pico

When scanning the landscape of jazz records from 2010, one thing is clear: there’s an awful lot of very skilled and talented jazz musicians out there today, and I would argue that there are more of those than at any other time in jazz history. The sad irony of this is that all indications are that jazz audiences are at a long time low. I don’t want to sound like a snob because people should listen to whatever the heck feels good to them, but I believe that those who don’t give jazz a fair hearing are missing out on a rich, varied, passionate and virtuosic music form, and one of the great unique facets of American culture.

To those folks, I could point to scores of releases from this year alone out of the hundreds that has met my ears as perfect examples of the allure and vitality of this art form. This list below is only a subset of even that: if I were to list all “solid” jazz records, this tabulation would run closer to sixty than the twenty I consider “standout.” Even selecting the “best CD of the batch” was tough; it was a virtual dead heat among records by Aruán Ortiz, Michael Formanek, and Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky Green. But I have to choose just one, and the winner is

Best CD Of The Batch: Michael Formanek – The Rub And Spare Change

Beauty in art should be self-evident, but hidden charms is a lot of what makes jazz fun to listen to. For me, anyway. A chord unexpectedly replaced by another chord; a repeating figure that’s layered inconspicuously and transformed; a “wrong” note played, at least so it seems until it’s resolved; time signatures that mutate and shift; melodies that are fractured and reformed. These are features more often found in advanced, modern jazz, which if done right, takes the music to another level higher than just playing something someone else has already done, even if it is done very well. Indeed, some of the records in this list are on that list simply for the latter reason. But bassist and composer Michael Formanek chose the more difficult road less taken, and peppered this winner full of those hidden charms.

In his first record in thirteen years, Formanek shows no sign of rust with The Rub And Spare Change, a challenging but ultimately very rewarding record. Though the leader is self-effacing as a performer, his compositions burst with ideas that dance on the imaginary line separating advanced modern jazz and avant garde. Crucially, he selects the personnel who push these songs out to the edge of their potential: drummer Gerald Cleaver, pianist Craig Taborn and Formanek’s old colleague, Tim Berne, on sax. The telepathy among all four alone make this record, but between Taborn and Berne it’s pure magic, elevating songs like “Inside The Box, “Too Big To Fail,” and “Tonal Suite.” Formanek, within the narrow role he’s assigned for himself, is still very effective: his spidery lines of “Jack’s Last Call” seem to speak fluently to both Taborn and Cleaver simultaneously.

Three years ago, the best CD back then was also an ECM record that featured Taborn and Berne, and was led by another crafty musician/composer with loads of vision and creativity. Although The Rub And Spare Change is in most ways a much different animal than David Torn’s Prezens, it similarly reaches high both in terms of composition and performance, and hits its targets square on.

Best Song Of The Batch: Vijay Iyer “Human Nature”

Some artists will overplay a melody, which says one of two things: either he’s overcompensating for lack of nuance or the melody itself just isn’t that good. Piano maestro Vjay Iyer, in his rendition of “Human Nature” is the exact opposite case, on both counts. The opening track of his justifiably acclaimed solo piano triumph, simply called Solo, Iyer does the same thing we do here at SER with a lot of our One Track Minds: reach back to a comforting song from his youth. That song is Michael Jackson’s gentle and comely hit from Thriller, “Human Nature.”

Earlier in the year, another noted jazz pianist took a gander at another one of Jackson’s hits with a very imaginative take on “Beat It.” I loved how Jacky Terrasson mashed it together with “Body And Soul” and demonstrated the previously untapped possibilities that the King of Pop’s tunes presented. But Iyer succeeds, too, by taking a much more straight ahead approach. He faithfully renders the robust melody devised by John Bettis and former Toto keyboardist Steve Porcaro. However, elsewhere he makes some adjustments. As I wrote in the review for Solo, Iyer makes “his signature percussive left hand comes into focus, as his right hand provides harmony. The deviation from the original rendering comes not so much from notes played—he stays pretty faithful to the chord progression throughout. Rather, it’s how he modulates those succession of notes. He builds up the chorus with an intensity that washes over you, leaving behind a void in the sound at the end, which could be taken to symbolize Jackson’s departure.”

Respectful of the song, but remaining true to his own conception of it: that’s why Vijay Iyer makes appealing covers of even the more pervasive songs. “Human Nature” sounds renewed in his hands.

Best Of The Rest:

Harvie SCocolamus Bridge: Through a varied set of consistently good songs, Harvie’s pleasing bass is the common denominator.

David Weiss And Point Of DepartureSnuck In: Weiss and his band mine the highly inventive period of jazz right before it went electric.

Mort WeissRaising The Bar: Weiss takes a bunch of standards and caresses them lovingly with his stirring clarinet alone.

Orrin EvansFaith In Action: Evans takes the music of Bobby Watson to new heights.

Pete LevinJump!: Funky, greasy Hammond B-3 goodness rendered by Levin and his crack crew.

Danilo PérezProvidencia: Pérez articulates the wide scope he has for this record with grace, vision and taste.

Sarah WilsonTrapeze Project: Wilson’s latest is delightfully quirky like a lighter, more accessible Henry Threadgill, but always inviting.

Vijay IyerSolo: The attraction of Iyer’s playing can just as often be found between the notes as the notes themselves.

James Moody4B: Moody leaves us at the top of his game.

Hiroe SekineA-mé: On the first time out, Sekine seems to do everything right: performance, group interplay, composition and creative arrangements of standards.

Keith Jarrett/Charlie HadenJasmine: Jarrett and Haden’s shared obsession with beauty within a song results in a beautiful album.

Peppe MerollaStick With Me: The Italian drumming extraordinaire leads an all-star band in one of the strongest hard bop recordings of the year.

Aruán Ortiz Quartet featuring Antione Roney – Alameda: Ortiz at times invokes the power of Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles and Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs in a rhythmically challenging, intelligent and enjoyable set.

Rufus ReidOut Front: A perennial first-call sideman bassist assembles a killer trio and leads a first-rate date.

Jeremy PeltMen Of Honor: Reminds me a lot of mid-sixties Miles without straight copying him.

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky GreenApex: This more than lives up to the billing. Alto madness!

Michael DeaseGrace: Records like this from Dease assures us that jazz will continue to have outstanding trombone players in the rich tradition of J.J.Johnson and Curtis Fuller.

Tineke PostmaThe Traveller: This Dutch saxwoman really comes into her own on this record.

Colorado Conservatory For The Jazz Arts Fourteen Channels: These kids have a very bright future.

Hilario Duran TrioMotion: Duran squeezes all the energy and motion typical of an Afro-Cuban orchestra out of a piano-led trio.

Erica Lindsay And Sumi TonookaInitiation: An album that combines strong performances with impressionistic moods.

Jason RobinsonThe Two Faces Of Janus: The saxophonist and composer Robinson leads a potent group through a set of his finely-constructed modern jazz compositions.

NEXT: Part 5 Whack Jazz…

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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