In the last decade of his life, Duke Ellington, probably America’s greatest composer, had a resurgence. Jazz, was in turmoil, expanding and contracting at the same time, not unlike a star going supernova. In Ellington’s case, he was reincorporating various musical influences. He returned to the sacred music of his early life, to New Orleans, to the songbook of his musical foil, Billy Strayhorn, after Strayhorn died in 1967. But it is the sacred music that truly reinvigorated what would be the master’s last era.
Looking across the last decade in music is also a bit like a supernova. Industry shifted, collections went digital, and vinyl sales were reignited. Album music returned. And jazz as a genre has had a bountiful renaissance, aided by gifted archival combers like Zev Feldman and Michael Cuscuna, daring label presidents like Don Was at Blue Note and Danny Bennett who was at Universal until last year, and music critics like Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff. But it is the musicians who have continued to embrace what looked to be a dying star and kept the sound of America full of breath and vigor, much as Ellington did in his final years.
There were several jaw dropping instances of rare musical discoveries this decade. New jazz scenes sprouted, most notably outside of the US in London. There were also a multitude of groundbreaking electronic jazz fusion recordings. This list isn’t as inclusive to all these landmarks as it could be. And in truth, it is a best-of-list in name only. The chief thing to happen in jazz across this decade isn’t one show, or any ten recordings. Instead, the most celebrated experience this decade, or any other, is the fact that there is a place of musicality that requires an understanding of musical language, but that also demands extensive improvisational moments centered in emotional honesty. That was once a very American concept. Today it is neither unique to the US, or to jazz.
Pick of the Decade
Charlie Haden & Hank Jones — Come Sunday
The act of picking any one recording over another is real folly. But it is also emblematic of artistic merit, and jazz could use some emblems as it moves from struggling art form toward some of its former glory. And the duo of Hank Jones and Charlie Haden instilled the dynamism of Ellington’s sacred sounds into a closer setting with their final recording as a duo, Come Sunday released in January 2012. Jones, brother to Coltrane drummer Elvin, Mel Lewis Big band co-leader/trumpeter Thad, and double bassist Eddie, died months after the set was recorded in 2010. Haden was gone two years after its release. Certainly, the musical pedigree is here. Hank Jones played piano with Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie — essentially a who’s who of jazz elites. If producers needed the broadest dexterity on the keyboard, they went for Hank Jones. Charlie Haden came out of the Los Angeles jazz scene of the late 50s and landed in Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking genre defying band. Later he got hooked on dope, got off it, became a Guggenheim fellow and created the Jazz program at Cal Arts. Their two paths couldn’t have been more separate, though the variedness of their careers certainly provided them with common ground.
Come Sunday is named for the closing song of the set, written by Ellington. The selection of tunes plots a course through spiritual music in America, a complex realm that tries to balance the fire of the Old Testament upon New Testament accord. Since the first slaves were shipped to the US, spirituals have offered the African American community release from the various racial taxonomies built into the fabric of our country. Long before the Civil War all the way up to the present day, the musical salve of spiritual release has delivered a powerful, though, largely intangible victory over racism’s underlying oppression. Hank Jones is black, Charlie Haden is white. Their duo is colorless. It’s a beautiful commitment to an unspoken unity that pushed them to explore this music together.
And while the music here is neither searing nor revolutionary, it is essential. Jones was 91 at the time of recording. Haden was 73. Rather than adhering to a theme of resistance that often clings to spiritual music, the duo tapped into a more ethereal realm. While each musician was active before and during (and after) the civil rights movement, witnessing that era’s coarse, single-minded antipathy first hand, this collection comes decades later, when both Jones and Haden had settled into their musical abilities and philosophical beliefs. It is a consolidation of their wisdom that permeates the music of Come Sunday.
[Listen tracks from all releases at Riot Material]
Yes the music is spiritual. But that does not mean it is austere or stiff. Some songs are more identifiable than others. The second song, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” is most closely associated as a Christmas carol. This performance, guided presented by the minimal instrumentation, allows for a more intimate take. It’s a sly move to choose as the second song of your collection of spirituals a popular Christmas song. But it works. That slyness pervades across this recording. Both musicians allow the songs to remain true to their origins, while bringing to them a melodic crispness that a larger band would have squandered with overly methodical arrangements.
That the upright bass and the piano stake out musical roles that often overlap is another key to this collection’s success. Haden and Jones are familiar with stretching out of their preconceived roles in bands, and taking the forefront, or reinventing the rhythmic balance of the background, punctuating the beat with invention. That shared awarenesss of musical space clothes the music on Come Sunday with an acoustic warmth not found in duos that feature horns or drums. This warmth is particularly suitable to the spiritual nature of the song selection. Haden’s cultivated bass envelops the music while Jones’s piano strands in and out, and the effect like a kind of instrumental ballet. On a tune as iconic and regimented as “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” Haden’s bass brings a panoramic feel, opening it wider, while Jones’s subtle pacing and use of pianissimo outlines a delicate gauze that manages to swing despite the silken thread they’ve spun the song with. Even when Haden/Jones duo plays it soft, their instincts are not restrained. The silkiness of their sound is woven into the deepest religious music of “Bringing in The Sheaves,” the aforementioned “Old Time Religion,” and “Nearer My God To Thee,” making the music less cumbersome, and their unexpected spryness elevate the hymns. I first knew these songs at an early age, an experience likely shared with many of Come Sunday’s listeners, sometimes from church, but also from media representations of church. Over the years, the songs took on the reductive shape of the material they supported rather than the actuality of their own identity. Haden and Jones have freed the music from the often tyrannical iconography spirituals are often associated with and the songs arrive with a varied charm that is just as representative of two the vast talents at the end of their lustrous careers as it is for the musical framing within each piece they resurrect.
Since Jones doesn’t have to placate lagging choir members or marshal a congregation of amateurs, his genius can sneak out, rather than rush to the forefront. And Haden’s bass lingers with the piano, then pushes into different areas of song, only to return at the close. The whole collection sounds as if he and Jones had performed this set together for a lifetime instead of a wintry two-day session shortly before Jones passed away.
It’s hard to think of any other career where age presents the same bounty of agility as presented here. That’s another reason why this music is my pick for best-of-decade. It was the last decade for both musicians. It provides a passage into their world of music as it closed out, livening old sounds at the start of a new era. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the album freshens the spiritual music from our past in a time when we’re mostly living longer, looking back across a wider spectrum of time. It is music that builds a mystical bridge across a turbulent decade. We elected the first African American President, and then, the man who replaced him in the Oval Office denied that his predecessor was truly an American citizen. We need to overcome that divisive behavior. In the meantime, Come Sunday strikes a hopeful, elegant chord of unity.
Nine Other Great Recordings from the Last Ten Years in Jazz
Darius Jones — Book of Mae’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise)
Jones’s output in the early part of the decade is dense. You could pick any of the albums he made from 2009–2014 and be well pleased with the results. A product of Virginia Commonwealth University’s esteemed music program, Jones plays an angular free sound that is less combative than some of his colleagues on the Aum Fidelity label. But when that free intensity glows in the bell of his saxophone, it is mercurial and inspirational. On “The Enjoli Moon,” Jones unleashes a terrifyingly powerful solo, only to relent to a mystical backing. Among the players on this recording is Trevor Dunn, a colleague of Mike Patton’s in the noise rock band, Mr. Bungle. Here Dunn plays upright bass. It’s a solid match.
Mary Lattimore — At the Dam
I don’t know if this is jazz, per se. It’s got harp, electronics, hypnotic loops, and that probably denudes it of the things that classically identify music as Jazz. But in her heart, Lattimore is improvisational and well-versed musically, two of the main ingredients in Jazz. So I’ll put it here just because of its monumental importance and excellent sound.
Boyd Dunlop — Boyd’s Blues
I have a clear bias for this recording. A close friend from college and co-creator of an unseen documentary on jazz bassist Henry Grimes discovered Boyd Dunlop in a nursing home back in Buffalo, New York. When he set about recording an album, he gracefully included me in Boyd’s first release, asking advice about the music and having me write the liner notes. But because this is extremely under-heard music, my bias be damned. Boyd’s Blues is jazz for jazz’s sake. As I wrote in the liner notes back in 2011, “This is the sound of long marinated dreams, and the noise that follows is a beautiful noise. Let it wash over you.”
Mara Rosenbloom, Sean Conly, & Chad Taylor — Prairie Burn
I don’t know much about Conly or Rosenbloom, but I spent several days in 2010 and 2012 filming Chad Taylor on the drums, live and in rehearsal. It became apparent as I familiarized myself with more of his musical output that whatever recording he plays on is made better by his innate cadence and intellectual approach to the emotional sounds stored within his body. This record is an absolution of thought and process. The end result of that equation is a mesmerizing balance of patience and passion. Go into the morass of traffic, slip it on the player, and free yourself of the adverse realties of your life. The trio skitters through their piano/bass/drum partnership with a delicate attack that makes it all sound so easy. That’s sheer professionalism, but it is also an abstract commitment to the curve of their sound. The actual recording is absent of the studio trickery which has plagued so many jazz recordings since the 70s. Prairie Burn sounds as if you’re sitting right there with them in the studio.
Sean Sonderegger’s Magically Inclined — Eat the Air
Sonderegger’s band is appropriately disassociated enough to move through the hard-felt absence of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizard downtown sound, while smart enough to employ one of Lurie’s compatriots, trombonist Curtis Fowlkes. This beautiful music leaves the raw edges in, allowing for sinewy electric guitar that neither erodes the groove nor placates the sound. There’s some vocal jazz too, an addition that could push this music into the shallow end of the pool. Here it does not. Instead the voices, the guitars, the horns, the drums and the bass deliver elaborate combinations that strengthen the music.
Delfeayo Marsalis — Sweet Thunder
Duke Ellington, along with his co-writer and arranger Billy Strayhorn, created the fibers that modern jazz wraps itself inside of. On this recording, Delfeayo Marsalis re-arranges the kings of arrangement, bringing along a top notch band that includes brothers Branford and Jason. The music is refreshed, the playing sublime. This is a player’s record. What joyful playing it is. On his next outing, Marsalis erred while trying to reinvigorate the “Sesame Street Theme” and came off as cloying. Here, the fire is magical, historical and most of all, musical.
Miles Davis Quintet — Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series, Vol 1.
Miles Davis long was an over-user of the mute. There, I said it. He relied on it because it created a different sound, an out sound. It distinguished his playing. There’s no arguing its merit. I understand why he did it, and marvel at the choice. Most of the time, it grates on my ears. However, Davis’s ability as a player, writer, bandleader, and changer of the course of music is undeniable. And this mother lode (Live in Europe 1967 contains over 3 hours of music, and a DVD) is one of the very best ways to close out one section of your career. The band is tremendous. The music is vast and intensive, often predicting the fusion and tape edits of Davis’s next steps without extracting this band’s musical nucleus. I was tempted to classify this as the best of the decade, and if you made this your pick, you wouldn’t be wrong, but for the mute.
Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble — Kelan Philip Cohran & the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Cohran and many of his children combine on this outing to refine the energy of a brass band with some of the structural abandon of Cohran’s career in jazz. This music is an exercise in brilliance from start to finish. It is the sound of horns played by musicians raised by horn players. And because of Cohran’s loose affiliation with AACM in Chicago and his stint with Sun Ra from 59 to 61, each of his sons have been educated in the atmospherics of sound right along with the more formal parameters of music. Neither purely Cohran, nor totally his children’s music, this is a complex jaunt through their familial bond.
Helen Gillet — Running of the Bells
Gillet’s solo debut was also in the running for my pick as the best album of the decade. This release certainly deserves a much wider the audience than it received, though Downbeat smartly gifted it with four stars upon its release. On Running of the Bells, Gillet reimagines the sound at the heart of jazz’s genesis. It helps that she’s based in New Orleans, the cradle of the idiom. On this recording, Gillet plays cello, accompanied by the late Tim Green on sax and Doug Garrison on drums. It is frenetic, like the loft scene, angularly resonant like post-bop , and it is full of imagination like modalism or any other great jazz recording. Green’s earnest playing welds to Gillet’s cello experiments a musical faithfulness that allows the more extravagant innovations to root down deep. Where so much of experimental music fills all space with unorthodox geometry of song, Gillet and company deliver a navigable stream for the listener to follow alongside of the familiar and unfamiliar notes as they cascade throughout.