Top music purchases of 2009

Haven’t felt too inspired on the politics front lately, so it’s time to turn to music. In no particular order, here was some stuff that I bought in 2009 and loved:

1. Frank Zappa, Roxy and Elsewhere. The funkiest Zappa I’ve heard to date, and arguably the loosest Zappa band of this period. The two drummers never get in the way of the groove.

2. Keith Jarrett, Facing You. Ted Gioia does a good job summing this one up; my only complaint is that “In Front,” the first track, is such a towering masterpiece that the rest of the record never feels quite at that level.

3. Miles Davis, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions. As a curious college radio DJ, I pulled “Right Off” off the shelf one day and threw it on the air without any idea what it was going to sound like. It rocked. I still remember the guy who called in thanking me for playing this oft-ignored classic. Unlike the complete¬†Bitches Brew box, this box’s bonus tracks often reach the heights of the original album.

4. Art Tatum, Piano Starts Here. I avoided listening to Tatum for years. I was too insecure a pianist to handle Tatum, who is not only to this day considered a technical apex of jazz piano, but also managed to throw in enough subtle harmonic maneuvering to show that the guy had brains to match his brawn. “Come on people, Tatum is for show-offs. I’d rather take my cue from Monk and the hard boppers anyway – they knew that it isn’t about how many notes you play,” I used to say. Everyone: I was wrong. I’m probably still not going to try to emulate Tatum anytime soon, but I can’t deny that he was legit. Watch.

5. Chris Potter Underground, Follow the Red Line – Live at the Village Vanguard. Craig Taborn is one of my favorite piano players. He can play in any bag, inside or out, electric or acoustic. Here he tears it up on Rhodes without even a bass player helping out. To the non-musicians out there, this is like winning a 1,000-meter race naked – you’re running so fast that nobody can tell you aren’t wearing anything. The compositions here are really strong, electric music played with heart.

6. King Crimson, Discipline. That this record isn’t more heralded speaks to the bankruptcy of most rock criticism. I have to admire Robert Fripp for having the guts to make an album like this at 35, an age at which most rockers are starting to think hard about taking gigs at your local dog track. KC’s earlier work still felt like a very British rock band (with prog and proto-indie touches), and they sounded damned good at it. Fripp could have coasted or succumbed to his own ego and surrounded himself with mediocre players. Instead, he brings in a guy as formidable as Adrian Belew to share guitar duties, has Tony Levin playing Chapman Stick, and decides to have everyone collaborate on these weird odd-meter tunes (I’m still trying to work out the hemiola on “Indiscipline”). You’d expect a nerdy, cold mess. The actual result is a crushing rock album.

7. Jimmy Smith, Groovin’ at Small’s Paradise. Smith’s earliest work is not quite satisfying for me. The great chops are always evident and Jimmy is playing really well, but the sound of the organ wasn’t fully settled yet – where the B3 drawbar settings Jimmy was using in 1958 sounded smooth and lean, the ones he was using in 1956 are more bouncy with the organ percussion too prominent; comparisons to a roller rink organist’s sound are too close for comfort. For this reason I’m always wary of stuff recorded before The Sermon. Yet these live sessions prove that in mid-1957, he was already there. I’ve said it before elsewhere on the Internet, but I’ll say it again: Jimmy Smith was an unheralded master of arranging tunes. The orchestration can sometimes seem like an afterthought, but the form is always played with in a wonderful way. I love the intros that Smith comes up with on this record. It’s sad that live recording was done so rarely during this period; I wish there were more documents of Jimmy playing in clubs, stretching out for 10+ minutes per tune like he does on these tracks.

Others that deserve mention but that I haven’t digested thoroughly enough yet:

Clark Terry, Serenade to a Bus Seat

Steve Lacy, Soprano Sax

Sonny Criss, Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool)

Weather Report, Weather Report (the 1970s debut album, not the 1980s one of the same name)

Mahavishnu Orchestra, Between Nothingness and Eternity

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