If It Ain't Got That Swing

With continued financial woes to face, the aftermath of a war on foreign soil still to be wrapped up, and snipers here in our own backyard, 2003 really wasn’t much to write home about. As has been the case for centuries, man’s art tends to reflect in some shape or form the social conditions of the time and so it should come as no surprise that jazz fortunes were at a low point this past year to say the least. The industry continued to feel the effects of a reissue boon over the last ten years that has unearthed large parts of label catalogs, now leaving only a small portion of material available to repackage. And as for new music, let’s just say that there was very little that perked this reviewer’s ears over the past 12 months.

Considering that jazz accounts for a small percentage of music product sold and again keeping in mind our poor economy, the major labels seemed to be playing it safe with rosters that contain only really big names or one or two "flavor of the month" artists that execs hope will strike a chord in the same way that Norah Jones swept the music scene last year. So while the legendary Blue Note label pumped out product by established artists as Joe Lovano, Pat Martino, Kurt Elling, and Ron Carter, none of these releases seemed to do much more than cover ground that had already been previously trodden upon. Even their attempt to reach the jam band crowd with the group Soulive met with mixed reviews.

The Verve Records Group, which consolidates some of the most important jazz catalogs in the history of the music, also seemed to be playing their hand close to the chest. Saxophonist Michael Brecker’s Wide Angles was panned by critics and a long awaited release from pianist and Wayne Shorter comrade Danilo Perez proved to be somewhat less than convincing. On the other hand, Shorter’s Alegria, his first work for a large ensemble in many a decade, seemed to be much more focused and multi-hued than the previous Footprints.

In the past it’s been the smaller independent jazz labels that have been widely known for releasing work of a more uncompromising nature and to some degree that still holds true. Despite some critics’ claims that the company seems to be stuck in a retro hard bop mold, the Dutch Criss Cross Jazz label continues to release a large amount of product each year while expanding the repertoire with such forward thinking talents as Ralph Peterson, Jeremy Pelt, E.J. Allen, and guitarists Jesse Van Ruller and Adam Rogers.

On a smaller scale, both Reservoir Music and Palmetto Records have honed a particular roster that has brought the companies success; drummer Matt Wilson’s Palmetto release Humidity being a particular favorite this year among the cognoscenti. As for Reservoir, both pianist Barry Harris and baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan hit their marks with excellent mainstream releases of interest.

One trend that continues to be particularly troublesome however is the glut of "so-called" jazz singers flooding the market with the mixed results ranging this year from a truly dreadful take on Beatles’ tunes by Connie Evingson (Let It Be Jazz) to a rather lackluster new Blue Note date from media star Cassandra Wilson. Relative newcomer MaxJazz has even taken it one step further by adding guest vocalists to otherwise acceptable albums by Geoff Keezer and Steve Wilson, a move that is arguably a marketing ploy to sell these singers from their own roster to buyers of these mainstream releases. Even their generally fine production for trumpet phenom Jeremy Pelt featured the superfluous addition of a string ensemble on many a cut.

Somewhat of a surprise, one of the best releases of the year was not actually recorded in 2003, but was unearthed from the Blue Note vaults. Pianist and composer Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships features long lost and lamented jazz men such as Joe Farrell and Woody Shaw on Hill’s demanding and disparate charts with the results sounding as fresh today as the day they were recorded back in 1969. As some have said, jazz’s future is in its past and in the case of this Hill masterpiece that is patently true. Sadly, jazz artists of Hill’s stature are smaller in number these days even if there are more jazz musicians and opportunities to record out there than ever before.

C. Andrew Hovan’s Top Jazz Picks For 2003

1. Andrew Hill - Passing Ships (Blue Note)

2. Wayne Shorter- Alegria (Verve)

3. Miroslav Vitous- Universal Syncopations (ECM)

4. Dave Stryker/Steve Slagle- The Stryker/Slagle Band (Khaeon)

5. Steve Kuhn- Love Walked In (Sunnyside)

6. Jim Snidero- Strings (Milestone)

7. Matt Wilson- Humidity (Palmetto)

8. Jesse Van Ruller- Circles (Criss Cross)

9. Cyrus Chestnut- You Are My Sunshine (Warner Bros.)

10. Kenny Garrett- Standard Of The Language (Warner Bros.)

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