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The Best Jazz and Blues of 2003

Publishing year-end lists serves to spark debate and (ideally) inspire closer inspection of the music that moves us throughout the year. If you’re like me, you probably shake and scratch your head every time you look at these lists, wondering what in the world the list maker could have been thinking. "They thought what was the best album of the year? What, are they kidding!?" There are lists that inspire, too. I often buy music on the basis of year-end lists, but only if at least some of the list mirrors my own tastes in music. Hopefully you’ll find something here that inspires, as well as a few good head-scratchers.

Given the symbiotic relationship between jazz and blues, and my affection for these wholly American-born and internationally celebrated musical forms, I offer a baker’s dozen for both.

The breadth of jazz, from big band to traditional, pop, bop, vocals, progressive, fusion, Latin, Afro-Cuban and avant garde, is sometimes astounding. It’s equally amazing that so much impressive music is released every year to fit every ear.

Virginia Mayhew: Phantoms (Renma). A piano-free quartet of saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums with a strong improvisatory nature that brilliantly straddles the fence between outside and inside.

Tatsu Aoki-Robbie Lynn Hunsinger-Joseph Jarman: Trio (Melungeon). This combines resonant bass work with an arsenal of winds by three master avant-garde musicians who inspire, cajole and offer music that thinks outside the box.

Sotoka Fujii: Before the Dawn (MTCJ). Avant-garde big band led by the highly regarded Japanese pianist who is unquestionably one of the most dazzling and un-clichéd voices in jazz.

Steve Turre: One 4 J (Telarc). Trombonist Turre’s tribute to J.J. Johnson features 5 more trombones and rhythm in a dynamic, playful romp that does the maestros (both Turre and Johnson) proud.

Piotr Michalowski, Mike Khoury, Lenny Bukowski: Close Embrace of the Earth (Abzu). Fascinating sketches performed on violin and a variety of clarinets, saxophones and "little instruments" from fascinating Ann Arbor-based free jazz trio.

Oscar Peterson: Dimensions A Compendium of the Pablo Years (Pablo). Speaking of genius, here are four CDs of perhaps the greatest jazz pianist covering a wide spectrum of jaw-dropping brilliance.

Duke Robillard/Herb Ellis: More Conversations in Swing Guitar (Stony Plain). A modern day master meets one of the most distinct swing stylist in jazz guitar in a program that brings out the best in both in an appropriate titled gem.

James Cohen: High Side of Lowdown (Northernblues). Beautiful flamenco guitar that strikes this reviewer as the most fascinating guitar recording of the year.

Jessica Williams: All Alone (Max Jazz). On the finest solo piano record of the past few years, Williams covers standards and originals with an introspective and emotive touch.

Rene Marie: Live at Jazz Standard (Max Jazz). Though she’s been building a reputation for a few years, this marks my first exposure to this extraordinary vocalist.

Branford Marsalis: Romare Bearden (Rounder). Romare Bearden was a visual artist who excelled at collages just as Brandford Marsalis excels at shaping the best music around him into a cohesive and tantalizing whole.

Jimmy Cobb’s Mob: Cobb’s Groove (Milestone). The jazz drummer was a mainstay on dates with Coltrane and Miles and he carries that explosive style into the new century.

Francesca Tanksley: Journey (Dream Caller). The Billy Harper pianist reminds at times of McCoy Tyner and never fails to completely dazzle with her technique and heart.

Ironically, I suppose, as much as I lean toward "outside" jazz, my tastes in blues generally run completely "inside," toward the stripped down, acoustic blues, though a little loud wall-shaking is good to keep the earwax pliant.

Marcia Ball: So Many Rivers (Alligator). The standout disc in a career full of standout discs, this will probably take home a handful of Handys for the two-fisted Austin-based pianist.

Rory Block: Last Fair Deal (Telarc). Following 20 years of superior recordings for Rounder, the virtuosic traditional Delta-style guitarist and vocalist Rory Block has released her masterpiece on a new label.

Fiona Boyes: Sweet Jelly Roll (Back Porch). The winner of the 2003 Blues Challenge, in the acoustic division, this Aussie is poised to be a huge internationally acclaimed singer/guitarist.

Alberta Adams: I’m On the Move (Eastlawn). Ms. Adams has been singing professionally for more than 60 years, though she’s only released 4 full albums, of which this gem shines brightest.

Harry Manx/Kevin Breit: Jubilee (Northernmusic). Manx is a genius. Though his "Wise and Otherwise" is superior, this has some very impressive moments.

Heroes of the Blues Best of Rev Gary Davis (Shout!). This is part of a series of six similar packages from the label, and may well be the best hits package released on the maestro.

Various Artists: Gary Davis Style (Inside Sounds). This Memphis label understands the good reverend’s appeal, and this extraordinary collection is as impressive for the well known as for the lesser (sometimes un-) known players.

Guy Davis: Chocolate to the Bone (Red House).Born about 60 years late, Mr. Davis is one of the finest classic acoustic bluesmen on the planet, and this is his finest yet.

Otis Taylor: Truth Is Not Fiction (Telarc). Like a modern-day Ritchie Havens, Taylor doesn’t let us forget our history as a human race and endeavors to keeps us honest in our dealing with each other.

Nick Curran: Doctor Velvet (Blind Pig). This young jumpin’ jiver is deep into the roots-a-billy and jump blues sounds of the 50s and can induce a toe tappin’ smile from a block away

Michael Burks: I Smell Smoke (Alligator). Burks follows in the tradition of Luther Allison and, to a lesser extent Buddy Guy with ferocious guitar work and powerful vocals turned up to 10.

Junior Watson: If I Had A Genie (Heart & Soul). One of the most influential guitarists on the West Coast blues scene, alongside the late Hollywood Fats, he combines elements of Lazy Lester with T-Bone Walker.

Maria Muldaur: A Woman Alone With the Blues (Telarc). Maria has been just amazing over the past few years and this tribute to Peggy Lee is as sultry and sassy as it gets.

These are the recordings that most conspicuously excited your correspondent this year. They are offered in the spirit of sharing that excitement. What excited you this year?

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