Tuesday, May 22, 2007

My 90s Jazz List, with comments and some honorable mentions

My contribution to Destination: Out's 90s Jazz Poll was in today's post, so I figured I'd just get these comments out ASAP.

As previously mentioned, I was asked by the excellent Destination: Out crew to contribute a list to a 90s jazz poll they were compiling, inspired by a similar poll on 80s jazz which had been done by the Village Voice in the early 90s. I was honored, of course, and set about sifting through my records. Say what you will about lists, but for me at least they make for a good short hand way to recommend records, and writng them forces you to take a stand about the records, however arbitrary that stand may be. Also, as was the case for me this time, having to do this list meant I got to pull out some records I hadn't listened to for a while and check if they still moved me the way they once did. Moreover, the several contributions as well as the final list may inspire me to check out records I didn't know about before, or just skipped for whatever reason.

Anyway, after much agonizing, this is the list I contributed:

  1. Charles Gayle, William Parker, Rashied Ali: Touchin' on Trane (FMP, 1991)
  2. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages (Axiom, 1991)
  3. William Parker: The Peach Orchard (Aum Fidelity, 1998)
  4. James Carter: Conversin' With the Elders (Atlantic, 1996)
  5. David S. Ware: Flight of I (Columbia/DIW, 1994)
  6. Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy: The Fire This Time (In & Out, 1992)
  7. David Murray: Shakill's Warrior (Columbia, 1992)
  8. Ken Vandermark: Barrage Double Trio: Utility Hitter (Quinnah, 1996)
  9. Pharoah Sanders: Welcome to Love (Timeless, 1991)
  10. David Murray: Special Quartet (Columbia, 1992)
A list can never tell the whole story, of course, so I figured I'd add a few comments as well. But first, a bit of background.

Although music was a big part of my life throughout the 90s, jazz didn't enter into it in a big way until the latter part of the decade. There were several reasons for this. One was the fact that coverage of jazz, old or new, was and still is severely lacking in the Norwegian press. In addition, foreign publications were hard to come by in sub-urban Norway, apart from Guitar Player and the likes, which didn't really talk about music in the way I wanted to read about it. Also, the records stores didn't offer much help; if they stocked jazz records at all, they uncritically had ECM records because of the Norwegian connections, stocked Blue Notes 'cause they were Blue Notes, Verve records ditto, and a few Impulse! titles 'cause Coltrane had made records there.

Moving to the city helped, of course. Not only because of better record stores, but also because I was now able to get a hold of foreign magazines such as The Wire and Down Beat. Additionally, better book stores meant I discovered resources such as the Penguin Guides and, perhaps surprisingly, Spin's Alternative Guide to Music, which played a big part in turning me on to jazz musicians beyond Coltrane and Coleman. But perhaps most important was the fact that I now had daily access to the Internet where I could more easily stay up to date with current jazz through the likes of Village Voice and the Allmusic database, and access to online shopping meant I could buy those records without having to search through the shops in town (before I started to work in a record shop myself, that is). What all of this means is that, apart from the latter part of the decade, discovering 90s jazz records has been every bit the archival job as discovering records from the previous decade had been.

The music I discovered, either by digging in the past or "being there", is reflected in the list. For me, David Murray continued his excellent form from the 70s and 80s. Although I don't think Shakill's Warrior, with it's organ driven funkiness, or Special Quartet is quite up to par with, say, Ming, both are tremendous records. SQ is the most straight forward of the two, but the playing is impeccable, and it has quite a line-up: Murray, Fred Hopkins, McCoy Tyner, and Rashied Ali. Special indeed.

Another player who had already established himself but continued to grow throughout the decade, was William Parker. His powerful playing style and inventiveness had featured on many records under the leadership of others, among them my number 5 pick, David S. Ware's Flight of I. Now, though, he was beginning to apply his inventiveness and originality to his own work. Parker is one of my favorite contemporary composers, and if I was asked to compile a 00s list right now, I wouldn't hesitate to put Mayor of Punkville somewhere near the top. The Peach Orchard is a terrific record and thoroughly deserves its number 3 slot.

Speaking of David S. Ware, the opener on Flight of I, "Aquarian Sound", is probably my favorite jazz composition of the decade. Majestic, is what I would call it.

Of all the new talent to emerge in the 90s, James Carter was one of the few to capture my interest. The guy can seemingly play anything - and literally has - and make it sound interesting. The Real Quitestorm is a lovely record, but Conversin' displays his versatility as well as tipping the hat to the old guys who contribute on the record. One of them , Hamiett Bluiett, made a similar sentiment of recognizing both the old and new generation with his excellent Young Warrior, Old Warrior, which stayed in the race, so to speak, right up to the end.

As for the trends of jazz in the 90s, M-Base and similar styles never really sounded interesting to me. In Norway, musicians had started to mix elements of electronic dance music and jazz. Most of it sounded pretty uninspired in my opinion, but trumpet player Nils Petter Molvær made a couple of great records in which he seemed to further the ideas of John Hassel. He nevertheless did it in a his very own distinct way, not least through his chilling but equally compelling trumpet sound and the dense rhythms. Solid Ether from 1999 dropped just outside the top ten for me.

Still, what struck me as fresh about some of the 90s jazz I came to love, was that it seemed to have a distinct punk influence that set it apart from similarly energetic jazz of the previous decades. This may in part be imagined, but Matthew Shipp once stated his love for Black Flag's Damaged, and some of the new players, most notably Ken Vandermark, had obviously grown up on that kind of music as much as jazz. Whether I imagine this influence or not, the truth remains that some of the new jazz was able to convey the much of the same energy of the punk music I loved. Vandermark in particular made a huge impact on me when I heard him for the first time ca. 1998. Both Single Piece Flow and especially Target or Flag are powerful records - the latter is probably the one record I most regret not having found a place for inside the top ten. Still, Utility Hitter with the Barrage Double trio does the trick in spades. Highly energetic, and with Hamid Drake behind one of the two drum sets you can't go wrong. The name of the band, Barrage, does a good job of describing what you get here. Sadly, the distribution of the record has been poor, meaning not many people have been able to hear it. You may be able to find copies through Amazon or Gemm.com, or you can try Quinnah's website.

Speaking of rock influences: Sonny Sharrock's Ask the Ages was one of the records I initially discovered through the Spin book. The record seems to divide critical opinion into "great" and "average", but I belong among those who champion it. The opener, "Promises Kept", is a close contender for composition of the decade. Sharrock has a knack of sounding both powerful and vulnerable at the same time, a rare thing among guitar players, who often seem to paint themselves into one of those two corners. Sadly, like so much of his material, this record is out of print for the moment.

Lester Bowie didn't show any signs of "rocking out", at least in a punk influenced way, but The Fire This Time is still a fabulous record. The live record is made up of highly original takes on both jazz classics by the likes of Rahsan Roland Kirk, and pop classics by Michael Jackson, and every tune is treated with passion, "fire", and respect. The cuts never sound corny, and the end result is still highly enjoyable. Probably the most out-and-out fun jazz record of the 90's, and that, thankfully, without a trace of feeling guilty about it.

Pharoah Sanders welcomed us to love. I accepted, and was treated to one of the most beautiful ballad albums ever recorded in jazz.

Which leaves us with the top spot, Charles Gayle's Touchin' on Trane. Gayle may have a somewhat mixed discography, but this amazing record should save his reputation for some time. Perhaps it's with the same humility as displayed in recent interviews that he has named the album, as if to imply that he can never be as great as 'Trane himself. But this record does more than merely touch on 'Trane, it takes one of Coltrane's many strengths, the improvised solo, and forces it through the horn of a guy who has practiced in the subways of New York. The result is a sound that can be specifically associated with the city, much like a careening subway car, but it doesn't need to be. It does sound like someone trying to control something which has gone slightly astray, and if I was to bring reception studies into this, that is exactly what life in the nineties felt like too. With the help of William Parker on bass and Rashied Ali on drums - his best sidemen in my opinion - this push and pull is achieved to great success.

I noticed after I wrote the comments above that several contributors to the poll had more than ten records on their list. I almost wished I had done that too, but I think my top ten is a nice distillation of what I consider the most important jazz of the decade. Still, several records deserve an honorable mention of some sort, and so these are some of the records that went in-and-out of the list before the final result was handed in (a few of them are mentioned above):
  • Muhal Richard Abrams: Blu Blu Blu (Black Saint, 1991)
  • Big Satan: I Think They Liked it, Honey (Winter & Winter, 1997) - added points for best group name of the decade
  • Hamiet Bluiett: Young Warrior, Old Warrior (Mapleshade, 1995)
  • Peter Brötzmann, Fred Hopkins & Rashied Ali: Songlines (FMP, 1994)
  • James Carter: The Real Quietstorm (Atlantis, 1995)
  • Marilyn Crispell & Eddie Prévost: Band on the Wall (Matchless, 1994)
  • 8 Bold Souls: Sideshow (Arabesque, 1992)
  • Kahil El'Zabar Ritual Trio: Renaissance of the Resistance (Delmark, 1994)
  • Kahil El'Zabar w/David Murray, Fred Hopkins: Love Outside of Dreams (Delmark, 1997)
  • Joe Lovano: From the Soul (Blue Note, 1992)
  • Nils Petter Molvær: Solid Ether (ECM, 1999)
  • David Murray: South of the Border (DIW), Jazzosaurus Rex (Red Baron)
  • Other Dimensions in Music: Now (AUM Fidelity, 1998)
  • Matthew Shipp: The Multiplication Table (Hatology, 1998)
  • Cecil Taylor: Celebrated Blazons (FMP, 1993)
  • Vandermark 5: Target or Flag (Atavistic, 1998)
  • Reggie Workman: Summit Conference (Postcards, 1994)

In the long run, contributing to this poll will help beef up my Jazz section too, but it's been a busy month and I haven't come that far yet.

NB: I'm adding this note in 2011. There is a chance my ballot would have been slightly different had it been submitted today, both because of reassessments of the above as well as the fact that since then I've come across several great records I hadn't heard at the time (most likely to get a bump: 8 Bold Souls. Most likely to get relegated: James Carter). I won't alter the list here, and stand by my choices at the time. All of my top 10 choices are great records, and the top three would remain as it is here even today. I'll point you to my jazz lists if you are curious about which other 90's releases I enjoy.

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