The Best of 2010, Part 5: Whack Jazz

Share this:
Each of the year’s four Satoko Fujii records made our Best Of 2010 List.

by Pico

With the more accessible types of jazz out of the way in Part 3 and Part 4, this Best of 2010 series concludes with the least accessible stuff, the experimental and avant garde stuff that I affectionately call whack jazz. With a whole two dozen plus whack jazz are records considered exemplary, it’s not hard to figure out which style of music has been getting a lot of my attention over the last twelve months.

This list has a tendency, three of them actually. First of all, the entire 2010 output (at least that I’m aware of) from little ol’ Engine Music Studios from Brooklyn are represented here, all three of ’em. This indie label specializing in free jazz is the epitome of quality of quantity. Secondly, both of cornetist Rob Mazurek’s 2010 projects are saluted here, too, although neither of those releases are under his own name.

And lastly, five selections come from women out of East Asia, four of those—directly or indirectly—from Japanese pianist/composer/conductor Satoko Fujii alone. How can Fujii have all four of her undertakings considered among the best? Simply put, each record is highly creative but employ different approaches. The fifth comes from a woman in Singapore by the name of Domina Catrina Lee who crafted an amazingly ambitious record entirely on her own; when I first heard it I was fooled into believing she was leading a large band to perform some heady compositions. Due to lack of funds, Lee’s wonderful record is available only digitally via Band Camp, which is a great way to vend records, but it tends to reach a limited audience. This is why she is seeking to have pressings of physical CD copies in order to bring it the exposure it deserves. Click here to find out more about her RocketHub project and how you can help.

So with my musings and public service announcements done, let’s get down to business…

Best CD Of The Batch: Exploding Star Orchestra – Stars Have Shapes

In my review of the Chicago Underground Duo’s Boca Negra, I called CUD a “microscopic version of the Exploding Star Orchestra,” but the reverse is probably more accurate. The Exploding Star Orchestra, like the Chicago Underground Duo, is led by the trumpet player Rob Mazurek, and unlike most orchestras, ESO acts very small, like an amalgamation of several small groups playing at once.

Mazurek is an immense talent who is immensely under recognized, a very nimble and nuanced trumpet player who creates strange and exotically beautiful motifs balanced perfectly with improvised performances. This is evident in all the project he leads (Chicago Underground Duo, Chicago Underground Trio, Chicago Underground Quartet, Isotope 217, Tigersmilk, etc.), and cuts across all shades of jazz, from fusion to free.

ESO is one of his larger endeavors, and Stars Have Shapes is only the second record by this large assemblage. Mazurek uses the larger number of players at his disposal to pull out more stops. Thus the sampling of noises from such disparate sources like “rain from the Brazilian Amazon,” to “stacked muted cornets run through various filters” weave in and around the various woodwinds, vibraphone, basses, and drums that alternately create drones, grooves and ruckus. In a group that features some of Chicago’s finest like Jason Stein, Jason Adasiewicz and Greg Ward and Nicole Mitchell, none of these players are put above the overall group. The appeal of ESO draws from the group as a whole much more than its top drawer individual parts.

Stars Have Shapes provides a larger glimpse into Rob Mazurek’s wonderfully bent, beautiful world. It’s unique, haunting and unpredictable. Much of the best whack jazz possess those qualities, and that’s why this album is what I’d call the best whack jazz has to offer this year.

Best Song Of The Batch: The Claudia Quintet With Gary Versace – “Keramag”

The Claudia Quintet leader John Hollenbeck is the combo’s drummer, composer and bandleader, three roles he plays prominently on the funky, stammering “Keramag.” A central five note theme that is in itself percussive (Hollenbeck virtually plays it on his drums in the prelude), this composition is an intensely integration between rhythm and harmony. The tangled dance between the two results in a song that you want to rumba to, only you’re not sure just how.

Hollenbeck in essence built three layers for his song: Ted Reichman’s accordion and Chris Speed’s clarinet handle the slower moving melody, Gary Versace’s piano and Drew Gress’ bass provide a slinky counter-melody that moves faster, and Hollenbeck himself supplies the rumbling, tumbling rhythms. Those rhythms follow odd patterns that somehow fit the contending melody and harmony like a glove. It’s not happenstance, of course, as the composer conceived it this way. To get it from conception to realization must have taken some acumen on the part of the players to pull off so precisely, though. This would be a sight to see accomplished live.

As it is, it’s a treat just to hear on record. “Keramag” more than any other whack jazz track from this year, exhibits what an aural delight avant garde can be when conceived in such a detailed fashion and executed to perfection.

Best Reissue Of The Batch: Andrew Lamb Trio – New Orleans Suite

Most of the time reissues occur because some old recording originally released in the old analog age, or a newer record originally not mixed so well is in need of a freshening up to make it sound better. Perhaps that was the case with Andrew Lamb’s New Orleans Suite, originally released only back in 2006, but there’s a much better reason for putting this out before the public: the message of dispair and hopelessness that prevailed in the weeks immediately followed the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

Though free jazz is often thought of as shapeless and lacking emotional depth (and some of it rightly earns that scorn), other examples are as primal and emotional as everyday human behavior. Saxophonist Andrew Lamb is one of those avant garde jazz musicians who fall into the latter category, and when he convened a session to record the emotions that prevailed at that time, three weeks after Katrina’s landfall, he along with bassist Tom Abbs and percussionist Warren Smith crafted a record that is one of the most emotionally raw and powerful paean to the tragedy of New Orleans. Moreover, they did it without any words, save for Smith’s forthright “talking blues” commentary on the first song “Dyes And Lyes,” which today, sounds just as poignant if not more so than then.

Re-released just before the fifth anniversary of the infamous landfall, this powerful document by Lamb and his cohorts is another moment when great musicians stepped up to make inspired music in the face of adversity.

Honorable Mentions: Curlew – A Beautiful Western Saddle, and Tom Hamilton – Pieces for Kohn/Formal and Informal Music.

Best of the Rest:

Mostly Other People Do The KillingForty Fort: More zany, ferocious blowing sessions from America’s favorite gangsta jazzmen.

The Ullman|Swell 4News? No News!: High-octane jazz that’s carefree but never careless.

Domina Catrina Lee Songs From The Breastbone Drum: A little technology and a lot of imagination go a long, long way.

Ken Thomson And Slow/FastIt Would Be Easier If: Ethereal or punkish, Slow/Fast are master mood modulators.

Wadada Leo Smith And Ed BlackwellThe Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer: This belated release of a long forgotten 1986 concert is a commanding performance by trumpet and drum heavyweights.

Ideal BreadTransmit – Volume 2 Of the Music Of Steve Lacy: An ideal way to delve into the musical genius of Steve Lacy, outside of listening to Lacy’s own recordings.

Matta GawaBa: Able to create huge mind-blowing sonic soundscapes from only a guitar and drums, these two guys are punk jazz’s version of The Black Keys.

Richard PinhasMetal/Crystal: Pinhas has a way of making his guitar-generated monolithic, dense sonic washes sound so soothing.

Chicago Underground DuoBoca Negra: Mazurek’s duo with percussionist Chad Taylor is a minimalist electro-acoustic masterwork.

David S. WareOnecept: Doing group improvisation with William Parker and Warren Smith is the best indication yet that Ware has rounded back into his old form.

Erik FriedlanderAlchemy: The sounds Friedlander wrests from his cello are always amazing, and even more so when he goes solo as he does here.

The Claudia Quintet with Gary VersaceRoyal Toast: The Claudia Gang bring to life the highly structured nature of John Hollenbeck’s compositions with virtuosic zeal.

Little WomenThroat: Thrash jazz at its best.

Bryan And The HaggardsPretend It’
s The End Of The World
: Playing the music of Merle Haggard Ornette Coleman style? Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?

Gato LibreShiro: Fujii plays accordion for this set of majestic, mellow Spanish-flavored avant garde jazz.

First MeetingCut The Rope: A piano/trumpet/guitar/drums combo led by Fujii’s husband Natsuki Tamura, the quartet takes chances on every track and lands on its feet each time.

Satoko Fujii Orchestra TokyoZakopane: Once again, Fujii uses an orchestra in ways not before imagined, obliterating the boundaries between formal and contemporary music.

Satoko Fujii ma-doDesert Ship: Fujii places more emphasis on player performance than composition in this more traditional quartet, but the character of her advanced concept for music shines through.

Steve RaegeleLast Century: Raegele’s brand of whack jazz is elusive and lurches from one idea to the next, and I like it that way.

MikrokolektywRevisit: Poland’s answer to the Chicago Underground Duo makes a record that matches Bocra Negra in depth and ambition.

Stephen HaynesParrhesia: Brass specialist Haynes’ debut with Warren Smith and Joe Morris in tow is fractured beauty.

William Parker Organ QuartetUncle Joe’s Spirit House: Parker makes an avant garde soul-jazz record that’s easier to enjoy than I Plan To Stay A Believer.

Matthew Shipp4D: Using only a piano and the other people’s compositions, Shipp speaks volumes about his own unique conception of music.

*** Have A Musical Merry Christmas ***

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
Share this: