As jazz continued this year to solidify its stature as the proverbial little fish in the big sea of corporate conglomeration, more of the same seemed to be the order of the day. Now it’s possible that the older I get the more jaded I become. Still, of the hundreds of discs that came my way this year, the law of diminishing returns seemed to kick in with a vengeance as it had in 2003 and the number of albums of new music that were truly outstanding could definitely be counted on two hands. Interestingly enough, the inroads that Norah Jones had made with her sweep of the Grammys last year had little lasting impact. Media darling Diana Krall released a new album of originals that few bothered to notice and even Jones’ sophomore effort received many a lukewarm reception. Although the glut of jazz styled vocalists that I lamented over last year seemed to level out during the past twelve months, there were still more than a fair share of forgettable discs of the genre, most notably Lisa Sokolov’s dreadful Presence. Easily one of the worst jazz albums of 2004, Sokolov wears out her welcome quickly with a series of overblown histrionics and off pitch flights of fancy that fail to get off the ground. Crossover artist Al Jarreau didn’t fare much better with his decision to return to a more mainstream format on the only mildly entertaining Accentuate the Positive. Also discouraging this year were a few albums by established artists that seemed to miss their mark. Saxophonist David Sanchez has been a promising talent for some years now, yet his attempt to combine classical sensibilities with his own jazz regimen as heard on Coral were largely in vain as the album fails to please from either a jazz or classical standpoint. Alto man Bobby Watson’s Horizon was arguably one of the super groups of the ‘80s and so a recent reunion for recordings purposes was a much-anticipated event that quickly lost its luster due to a breakdown in rekindling old flames on the disappointing Horizon Reassembled. On the upside of things, one of the more satisfying moments of recent jazz vintage was seeing the rise of trumpeter Sean Jones. The Ohio native and Youngstown University grad recorded his first album, Eternal Journey, for the Detroit-based Mack Avenue Jazz label and quickly started touring the country with his own ensemble. Appearing as part of an impressive line-up at the 25th anniversary of the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival, Jones and his crew of up and coming greats dazzled the crowd with his technical virtuosity, heartfelt improvisations, and mature writing. Out of the Freddie Hubbard bag, Jones just might be the most gifted newcomer to hit the jazz scene in many years and one can only assume that great things will be in store for this humble young man who has steadfastly dedicated himself to his craft and the jazz legacy. As in years past, the reissue market seems to hold the most rewards as the major labels delve deeper into their vaults for trinkets of gold and in the end come up with some attention-grabbing artifacts. So while jazz ukulele playing as heard on the Verve reissue of Lyle Ritz’s How About Uke? might be an obscurity for few tastes, albums like Gloria Coleman’s Soul Sisters and Jack Wilson’s Easterly Winds were long overdue for rediscovery and happen to be just a few of the marvelous reissues to hit the stores in 2004. Interestingly enough, avant garde piano luminary Andrew Hill seemed to be the man of the hour last year, the appearance of his previously unreleased Passing Ships making a big splash with the critics. Building on that momentum, this year Blue Note finally decided to reissue the formerly scarce Hill classic Dance With Death and plans are in the works for a boxed set with yet more of Hill’s unreleased Blue Note material. And speaking of boxed sets, they made a big comeback this year with deluxe packages dedicated to the works of Cleveland legend Albert Ayler, Tal Farlow, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Dexter Gordon. But as we basked in nostalgia, so too came the unfortunate loss of such jazz champions as Elvin Jones, Steve Lacy, Illinois Jacquet, Jackie Paris, Barney Kessel, and James Williams. One can only hope that men like Sean Jones and other youngsters of his ilk will continue to contribute to a jazz heritage that currently appears to be very much in transition.
C. Andrew Hovan’s Top Ten Jazz Picks (in no particular order)
John Scofield- En Route (Verve) Mike LeDonne- Smokin' Out Loud (HighNote) Ralph Bowen- Keep the Change (Criss Cross) Andrew Hill- Dance With Death (Blue Note) Jim Rotondi- New Vistas (Criss Cross) Art Farmer/Benny Golson- The Complete Argo/Mercury Recordings (Mosaic Mail Order) Uri Caine Trio- Live at the Village Vanguard (Winter & Winter) Stefon Harris- Evolution (Blue Note) Enrico Rava- Easy Living (ECM) Don Pullen- Mosaic Select 13 (Mosaic Mail Order)