The Best Jazz Albums of 2009

A Dozen Discs I’m Thankful For

 Well friends, it’s December again.  We’ve just finished eating leftover turkey and we’re now ready to make Nat “King” Cole work overtime for the next month. However, before we completely move into this most avaricious of seasons, I would like to stop for one more moment of thankfulness.  Looking at it retrospectively, the last year of the 21st Century’s first decade was a relatively strong year for jazz.  This is more amazing, given that those who wish to write jazz’s epitaph seemed to be trying harder than ever to finish these post-mortems.  But jazz’s slow, but steady embrace of social media, demonstrated by events such as Howard Mandel’s nascent “Jazz Lives” movement on Twitter, and the growth of, a kind of Facebook for jazz, started by JaiJai Jackson, daughter of the late bassist Chubby Jackson, were reasons for hope. Then, there was the resurrection of JazzTimes magazine, after a brief absence; another encouraging sign that perhaps there is still life left in jazz’s battered body.  Therefore, as a jazz fan and an eternal optimist, I choose to be encouraged. Yes, the major record labels, or what passes for major labels nowadays, have abandoned jazz. The good news is that more jazz artists are taking charge of their own music; producing and recording their own albums, resulting in music that represents more of their vision than ever before.

So I’m thankful, as a radio programmer and writer/critic, for the bumper crop of great jazz that came my way this year.  Out of those, here are a “delightful dozen”; 12 discs that made me feel thankful for being a jazz fan in 2009.  They are in alphabetical order, based on album title:

  • ¡Bien Bien! – Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet – The veteran Bay Area trombonist/arranger/producer has always been a part of the Latin Jazz scene.  This disc, the second release by his Latin Jazz group, is the finest of his long career.  It’s a mélange of Afro-Cuban styles that is a good for listening as it is for dancing.
  • Doozy Jackie Ryan – As aptly titled an album as I’ve heard all year.  In an era where double CD sets of new material are virtually unheard of, even by established artists, Ms. Ryan gambled big by releasing a 2 CD set; counting on the quality of the material to trump any potential audience trepidation.  She was right.  Backed by top-drawer sidemen, including Cyrus Chestnut, Eric Alexander and Jeremy Pelt; and buoyed by her warm, inviting contralto, Jackie’s album generated critical acclaim, which is now being matched by sales. She is “Jackie Who”, no more.
  • Emergence Roy Hargrove Big BandI first saw Hargrove fronting a big band at a concert in Washington Square Park, a little over ten years ago.  That band was compelling, albeit a bit under-rehearsed.  It took until 2009 for that embryonic idea to grow to the point where it appeared on record.  Though I still think of him as the kid from Texas that he was 20 years ago, Hargrove has now added another powerful facet to his musical personality.  Mature arrangements, a powerful, tight, sound and great songs (including the wonderful Roberta Gambarini on vocals), make this disc a winner.
  • Endurance – The Heath Brothers – To look at the cover of a Heath Brothers album and not see the lean, bearded visage of Percy smiling back at you, is a heart tugging moment.  Though the eldest Heath is missed, Jimmy and “Tootie” soldier on mightily. Jimmy’s tenor and soprano are still powerful. Tootie is a fine timekeeper and young David Wong walks admirably in some very big shoes, on bass.  Endurance is part reminiscence, part reintroduction and all outstanding.
  • Kind of Brown Christian McBride – Another “young lion” who has morphed into a mature master, seemingly overnight; Kind of Brown, returns the musically peripatetic McBride to his acoustic mainstream roots.  Dedicated to Freddie Hubbard and Cedar Walton as well as peripherally, to Ray Brown and Miles Davis, Kind of Brown, is a strong mix of originals and under heard jazz classics.
  • Moody 4A – James Moody – Like Jimmy Heath, Moody’s sax mastery stretches back to the days of Diz, Bird and Bud.  And also like Heath, Moody has lost very little of his power and none of his expressiveness.  On this new disc, accompanied by Kenny Barron, Todd Coolman and Lewis Nash, Moody breaks no new ground but damned if he doesn’t make the familiar ground feel so good.
  • Plays for Monk Bobby Broom – Will someone please give this cat the attention he deserves?  Broom’s disc was the second of two fine Monk tributes by guitarists, released in 2009.  Broom’s swung a tad harder, which why he gets the nod this time over Peter Bernstein, IMHO, and why he made this list. I also loved the cool Monk tribute on the cover. 
  • Prana Dance – Tom Harrell – Now in his mid-60’s, Harrell keeps getting better and better with each passing year, but instead of talking about his amazing music, all the “drive by media” seems to want to talk about is his schizophrenia.  Maybe if some of them would just stop and listen to Prana Dance, which is a good an album as Harrell has made in the last two decades, without thinking about the back-story, they would finally just talk of Harrell as one of the finest trumpet players of his generation, period.
  • Relentless – Sharel Cassity – It has been tough for women in jazz, who do anything but sing or play piano, to be seen as anything but a novelty act.  However, the last few years have brought us a bevy of women who are destroying that moldy stereotype, hopefully forever, by playing all kinds of traditional “male” instruments and in some cases, blowing the boys off the stand.  Sax playing women are leading the charge, with Grace Kelly, Tia Fuller, Virginia Mayhew and Ms. Sharel Cassity as shining examples.  On this, her second disc, Ms. Cassity, concentrates on her own compositions, and adds some turns on soprano and flute to her usual alto. And she plays with the bold confidence of someone who is saying “watch out, ‘cause I’m here to stay!”
  • So In Love – Roberta Gambarini – This first decade of the 21st Century has seen Roberta Gambarini grow from being a gifted unknown, into becoming the best jazz singer of our times and this protégé of James Moody sealed the deal with So In Love.  Blessed with an outstanding voice, impeccable timing, breathless scatting ability and enough acting skill to pull us further in with every word she sings; So In Love is the tour-de-force that was hinted at when we first heard her on Easy to Love.  All hail the new queen!
  • Songs Spun of Gold – Elli Fordyce – Elli’s is by far the most inspirational story in our top 12.  Elli is a new artist that I met through Twitter.  At 72, after multiple starts and stops over the years, she is finally living out her dream of being a jazz singer. “SSOG” is her second release in the last two years.  Lest you think that she is some kind of dilettante, this lady has chops for days and swings her way powerfully through 17 selections, including some memorable takes on some of the toughest to sing standards in the jazz lexicon.  With a voice that still has surprising strength and an ability to “live in a song” that singers half her age simply can’t match.  Songs Spun of Gold is a sleeper pick from an artist who has only just begun.
  • Uptown – Wayne Escoffery – It’s a veritable rite of passage for mainstream tenor players to eventually have to deliver a date where they front a soulful organ trio.  Some have made it a mindless blowing session, others have approached it as a chance to try to breathe some new life into a clichéd genre.  Mr Escoffery’s Uptown is firmly in the latter category.  When Escoffery wraps his big tenor tone around the decidedly unorthodox grooves laid down by organist Gary Versace, you know that the results won’t be run-of- the-mill bar walking.  This album is never less than interesting and at times, thrilling.  I hope that Escoffery, Versace and company, hit that part of town again soon.

On the web-radio, we are featuring round the clock Holiday jazz from now until December 27. After that, cuts from each of the above 12 discs will be featured as part of our year-end special, which will run until mid-January.  All this great jazz programming and more can be heard on Curt’s Café WebJazz Radio; 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

(12/30 – The Best Jazz of 2009 Show is now on the air;  daily from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (EST), through January 16, 2010.  Click here to listen now.)

I thank you all for reading and listening. Your comments, as always, are appreciated.

Until the next time, the jazz continues…


9 Responses to “The Best Jazz Albums of 2009”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Parker and Curtis Davenport, Curtis Davenport. Curtis Davenport said: Gr8 Morning All! New post 2 the Curt's Cafe Blog. 12 best jazz CDs of 2009. Pls chk it out when u get a minit. […]

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by curtjazz: Gr8 Morning All! New post 2 the Curt’s Cafe Blog. 12 best jazz CDs of 2009. Pls chk it out when u get a minit.

  3. I wish reviewers would stop naming people the best, the queen, the quintessential, the reigning whatever. There are so many wonderful, gifted jazz artists operating under the radar who are worthy of support that it seems narrow, counterproductive, and even meaningless. Why does one person have to be the best? Is jazz or any art form supported by this kind of narcissism?

  4. Hi Curt!

    Absolutely awesome list. Your stellar reviews are truly appreciated. But now my Christmas wish list just increased nearly tenfold!

    I first heard Bobby Broom in Kenny Burrell’s Jazz Guitar Band many, many years ago and felt strongly that this young fellow had a bright future ahead of him (the other guitarist Rodney Jones was/is none too shabby either). Yes, let’s all give this cat the recognition he deserves!

  5. Hey Barbara, I like lists like this one because four of those names are new to me. I will now seek them out and give them a listen.
    Happy Festivus!!!

  6. Hey Don,

    Happy Festivus!! to you too!

    I don’t object to lists. I object to performers being singled out as the “ultimate” when there are many, many superior musicians/singers in the jazz community. Not everybody has the same marketing support. That’s all I’m saying.

  7. […] parts. More out-leaning lists from Chris Kelsey and Clifford Allen; a more straight-ahead list from Curt’s Jazz Cafe. Jason Parker gives us Seattle’s best (straight-ahead) jazz of 2009. Notes from the trickle […]

  8. […] McBride, Mark Whitfield and many others. Her greatest triumph though has been Relentless, her critically acclaimed 2009 disc. We expect to hear much more from Ms. Cassity in the […]

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