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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Free Jazz Top 10 - 2009

Not that I'm such a fan of lists or rankings, but it's always a good occasion to look back and see what the year has brought us. I reviewed a little less than 300 albums this year, and listened to a lot more, although sometimes just barely, I must admit.

First the worrying news : the divide that is growing between the CD output by European labels as compared to US labels, not only the number of labels, but also the number of albums by label. With the exception of a few (AUM Fidelity, Porter, Delmark, ESP, ... ) the most relevant US labels are the initiative of the musicians themselves (Tzadik, Atavistic, Skirl, Screwgun, Firehouse 12, ...). (or are my worries ungrounded and is this all an illusion, created by lack of proximity?)

Since quite a lot of the music comes from American musicians, they have to resort more and more to European labels to get their voice heard. In Europe, and this despite the economic crisis, the output is quite good. Think of labels like Clean Feed, Leo Records, Not Two, NoBusiness, HatHut, Futura Marge, RogueArt, Jazzwerkstatt, Intakt, Creative Sources, Amirani, Kadima, MultiKulti, Fennomedia, FMR, Matchless, ECM, ILK, Ayler, ... and I'm of course missing some, so apologies for that. I have no explanation for this transatlantic difference, but the good news is that good music is still being released, regardless of the geographic location of the labels.

I hope they all get the revenue they deserve. Without the financial risks of these labels and without the passion of the people who run the labels, much of the great music that we enjoyed this year would have remained unheard.

And that's the good news. What a lot of new things we got this year, and what quality.

First, there is a tendency away from volume, moving into free minimalism or free lyricism, with musicians like the WHO trio, Lotte Anker, Samuel Blaser, Christian Lillinger, Torben Snekkestad, Katherine Young, ... who demonstrate that musical intensity and power can as equally be generated by subtlety and nuance.

Second, there are the acoustic sound sculpturers, who completely do away with melody and rhythm, and create the most unheard kind of aural vistas, sometimes hard to get into, sometimes with stunning results. Examples are Dans Les Arbres, Mokuto, Paura, Bill Dixon, Graveyards, Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Buffalo Collision, Cardinal, Ear&Now, Carl Maguire, ...

Third, there is the real free jazz, solidly rooted in jazz and blues, yet so perplexingly alive. This is where the icons shine : David S. Ware, Trio X, Joe McPhee, The Nu Band, Dennis González, Fred Anderson, Fonda/Stevens Group, ...

Fourth, there is the younger generation, bringing this free jazz a step further, closer to free improv, such as Nuts, Trespass Trio, Abdelhai Bennani, Rodrigo Amado, Demian Richardson, Transit, Aida Severo, setting a totally new context based with often stunning results. Jazz is alive and kickin'.

Fifth, rock music also remains an influence, with bands such as Fire!, The Godforgottens, Tyft, Luis Lopes, Quartet Offensive, AlasNoAxis. Eeach with their own style and approach, yet creating new musical possibilities.

So, lots of good music, in a blurring of genres, and one wonders what the label of "jazz" still means, but we're not going to open that debate here. 

Here are my favorites of the year, in random order :
  1. Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver - Floating Islands
  2. Wadada Leo Smith & Jack DeJohnette - America
  3. David S. Ware Quartet - Live In Vilnius
  4. WHO Trio - Less Is More
  5. Barry Guy & Mats Gustafsson - Sinners, Rather Than Saints
  6. Joëlle Léandre & Jean-Luc Cappozzo - Live Aux Instants Chavires
  7. Tresspass Trio - Was There To Illuminate The Night Sky
  8. Cardinal
  9. Paura - The Construction Of Fear
  10. Transit - Quadrologues
  11. Collective 4tet - Transition
This makes a quite balanced list of wonderful music. This will for sure not be to everyone's taste but I hope to have given a list that is a little beyond the beaten track, yet full of musical quality. With music from all kinds of places, in all sorts of line-ups, in different subgenres and styles.

I want to thank all the musicians and labels for the great music they released this year. Great moments of joy, sadness, anger and aesthetic beauty, and also - luckily - many moments of surprises, of new sounds, new sound combinations, full of creativity, expressivity and vision.

And then there is this blog. On January 11 of 2009, we celebrated the 200,000th visitor. Today, we have exceeded the 420,000 visitors. Thank you all for your ongoing interest.

Happy New Year to you all, music lovers!

© stef


Danas said...

Dear Stef and all the fans of great jazz music. Wish you all the best in the upcoming 2010. Hope next year will be as successful in terms of new interesting musical projects as 2009 was. Take care and have a great New Years celebration

Johnny Jazz said...

Happy New Year to you Stef. I read your blog everyday being the jazz tragic I am. Hell, I'm reading it in bed at the moment on my iPhone having just woken up. Thanks so much to your fantastic blog which has opened my ears to so many great musicians. Lastly thank you to the music and musicians who continue to delight and challenge me. Happy 2010!!!

Eduard said...

Happy new year to you.
Your blog is very useful. I read it very often and I usually buy the CDs you recommend (the last ones, Lotte Anker and Katherine Young: great music!).
You are doing a great job.
Thank you very much.
Best regards from Barcelona.

Guy said...

stef, keep up the great work!
and a great 2010, for music and all of us!


tolstunja said...

Great. But what about Malaby's albums?

Stef said...

Hi Tolstunja, the downside of making rankings is that some musicians do not figure on them. Malaby surely released great albums this year and participated in some other, but well, we can't put all albums in the top-10 list.
Thanks for the suggestion.

Iordache said...

Hello Stef and Happy New Year! I started a Facebook group where people can promote their favourite jazz musicians by posting links to stores where they sell cd's or mp3's: Please have a look and join if interested. All the best, Iordache