Known Johnson

January 11, 2007

Overlooked Alternatives – 2006 Spotlight, Part 2: Jazz

Filed under: Best of 2006,Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 2:10 pm

I took a breather from jazz for a while, it seems, and missed out a bunch of great releases. I’m still catching up and still have some notable releases to pick up. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on which of last year’s releases that I did pick up were the best, however. Read on:

  1. Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian: Frisell heads back to his jazzier roots with this collaboration after years of exploring Americana, or, more accurately, it seems that drummer Motian and bassist Carter steered him toward jazzier material. That said, Frisell is still typical Frisell, but we get to hear him in a less wheat-fields and dirt-roads setting and more of a smoky jazz club sounding atmosphere, where his typical twang has some interesting textures to work against. Let’s hope this trio works together more (there is a fantastic little downloadable EP of four leftover tracks from these sessions available on Frisell’s website if you can’t get enough that comes highly recommended.)
  2. Dave Douglas – Meaning And Mystery: Another year, another great Dave Douglas release. The trumpeter may have made a slight mistake in releasing this solely on his Greenleaf imprint on the Musicstem website early in the year rather than through traditional routes, keeping it out of more ears than it deserved to reach, but it finally made its way to stores in the fall. Like many of my favorites of the year, I found myself initially slightly cold to this one – and then I warmed up very nicely to it. It’s a true grower. Given time, this thing spawns deep roots. It may not quite live up to predecessor, Keystone, but it’s cool soul may just burrow a little further under listeners’ skin.
  3. Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau – Metheny Mehldau:Quiet and reserved as Metheny Mehldau may be, my first reaction to it was damn. Cool, beautiful and quiet, this primarily duet-based album features the pianist and guitarist Metheny together for the first time in one of those matches that seem a little worrisome at first – are they too similar, will their styles simple ooze together and produce nothing of note? – and proved to be a perfect match. They function almost like twins – finishing each other’s musical sentences, complimenting each other in ways that couldn’t have been imagined. Things get even more interesting when Ballard and Grenadier from Mehldau’s trio appear for two tracks to turn up the heat – a setting that is promised as the second Metheny Mehldau album sometime early this year. I can’t wait. I’ve already got a slot in my best of 2007 list open for it.
  4. Branford Marsalis – Braggtown: Marsalis can burn it up with the best of them, and I typically love that most about him, but this time around it’s the haunting and lyrical “Hope” that has snared me. That’s not to say there isn’t hard-edged material, because there is – “Black Elk Speaks” is angular avant-garde, “Blakzilla” gets your blood pumping – but the heart of Braggtown lies in its quiet work, and the “Hope” sets up the listener early on for the quiet darkness that surrounds these pieces. It’s a two-faced album, almost – you get two distinct sides of Marsalis’ Quartet and that’s what makes it so compelling and dynamic.
  5. Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar: It’s astounding that Coleman could come back after 10 years and sound this fresh – time is clearly good to this man, creatively-speaking. Sound Grammar ranks among Coleman’s greats when most musicians are just cranking out music because that’s all they know how to do. If you ever liked Ornette, you’ll love this.

The best of the rest

  • Nels Cline – New Monastery: Part of the fun of guitarist Cline’s work is getting to answer the question “What next?!” This time around it’s almost straight-ahead jazz in the form of a tribute-of-sorts to one of his heroes, Andrew Hill. While Cline takes Hill’s compositions as starting points, that’s all they are – Cline lets his muse and his band take things in wild new directions from there. It’s safe to say that I’m going to be chewing on this one for some time.
  • Kenny Garrett – Beyond The Wall: While it doesn’t reach the heights that Standard of Language reached, Beyond The Wall comes pretty damned close. Holding it back are some unfortunate uses of vocals that, frankly, completely grate on this listener’s nerves such as in “Qing Wen,” where the title phrase is repeated so often that it’s nearly impossible to ignore and enjoy Garrett’s impressive sax playing. Were it not for a few tracks like that, this would have been a near-perfect album.
  • Brad Mehldau – House On Hill: I’m a Mehldau fan, and as such, this wound up getting plenty of play and wound up a favorite of the year. Despite that, something’s missing, something vital, and seeds of that were sown in this trio’s previous outing, Anything Goes, which also lacked a certain something. Both albums were recorded in the same sessions and as such, these are, in a way, “outtakes,” if that name can apply in a case like this. Following these sessions, drummer Jorge Rossy left the band to be replaced by Jeff Ballard, who recorded with continuing bassist Larry Grenadier and pianist Mehldau to produce last year’s fantastic Day Is Done. So what is missing? Fire, burning amibition, I don’t know . . . it’s just not quite as vital feeling. Maybe it’s just that much of the material feels so similar. I’m painting a much worse picture of it than I should – this is, after all, being listed among my very favorite albums of the year. That’s the thing – it still is. All of the elements of a typical Mehldau album are there – his chunky, complicated chording, the fantastic drumming, thoughtful bass lines making their own melodies . . . but as an entire piece, the album just lacks that great oomph that makes me go damn when it’s finished that so much of his other material has.
  • Jamie Saft – Trouble: One of 2005’s more interesting album’s was Saft’s exploration of John Zorn’s latest material in the Masada song book, Astaroth: Book Of Angels. This time around, pianist/organist Saft chose the work of Bob Dylan as his source material. Along with Greg Cohen on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums, the trio bends and twists Dylan originals in sometimes radical shapes, but most intriguing is when former Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton and Antony (of The Johnsons) sit on one song each to color them with their own unique traits.
  • David S. Ware – BalladWare: Recorded after a grueling tour in 1999, for some reason this remained hidden away until 2006. You’ll be scratching your head too when you hear it – not only is it an unusually restrained performance from Ware and his band, it’s one of their most beautiful, too. While they may focus on ballads, this doesn’t keep the band from diving deep into improvisation that takes them far into unknown territory. A great starting point for beginners due to the band letting up on the intensity a bit, but also extremely rewarding for demanding longtime fans.


  1. Mehldau’s output in 2006 was quite impressive in terms of quantity, but I don’t really flat-out love anything he did last year. I thought the Metheny collaboration was a little blah. I’m not a huge Metheny fan (although I like some of his stuff) and found that their styles didn’t really work well together. I felt that…well, this is going to sound crass, but it seemed like Brad was constantly being dragged down into Pat’s quasi-smooth jazz territory. But I’ve only listened to it all the way through once. Perhaps further listening will convince me otherwise.

    “House on Hill” was good, but I actually prefer Mehldau when he’s doing covers. Either standards, or quirky contemporary covers like Radiohead. I just prefer that side of him. Compositionally, he hasn’t really blown me away yet.

    The Renee Fleming collaboration was interesting, but I need to be in the mood for it. Again, further listening is probably required.

    Having said that, I loooove “Braggtown.” It’s my personal opinion that Branford is so talented and adventurous that even if he does something I don’t like (which is rare), I still admire it somehow.

    I haven’t heard the Ornette Coleman album, but I’m dying to. Something tells me I would like it a whole lot, especially considering the good reviews it’s been getting. I’m not a Coleman aficionado, but what I’ve heard is all very good.

    And I still need to discover John Zorn. Aren’t you and I due for some mix exchanging? My impending wedding has really rearranged my priorities lately, but I’d still like to make that happen.

    Comment by Chris — January 18, 2007 @ 7:04 am | Reply

  2. I’ve been slowly coming over to the Metheny side, Chris – it’s taken years. I’ve had a couple of his discs for a long, long time and suddenly I’ve been gripped by him for some reason and I’m finding lots to love in his music. So it may just be a timing thing. I think it’s that smoothness that throws people off at first, me included. I knew something good was going on, but there’s a lack of edge in some of his stuff that I always look for in jazz. But he’s such a monstrous player that I kept coming back to check it out and kept finding more and more to like. And I like a good challenge, which Metheny has been.

    As for Ornette, I have his Atlantic years box, which covers basically his most important period in the 60s, and Sound Grammar, and this actually measures up to that material. It’s THAT good!

    And I’ve got a Zorn (well, Masada, really) mix pretty much ready to go for you. I’m trying to reign in an out of control Frisell mix – I love him so much I’m having a really hard time cutting stuff out! These will be coming your way sometime soon, I swear!

    Comment by Tom — January 18, 2007 @ 8:29 am | Reply

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