It’s a curious time for jazz, blues, and gospel music. Even though these genres form the bedrock of American popular music, they now exist on the fringes of pop culture. Wynton Marsalis may have issued a stunning 15 CDs this year, but none of them appeared in the Top 100 of the Billboard charts. While vocal jazz replaced swing as the “in” sound, there was no clamor on pop radio for the new single from Terri Thornton or Charlie Haden. A couple of rock-blues (accent on the rock) acts and possibly Kirk Franklin are among the elite who get People magazine profiles and MTV access, but everyone else remains locked into specialty radio programs, niche magazine coverage, and historical retrospectives.
Yet things haven’t been this good for jazz, blues, and gospel in years. The reissue industry continues churning away, with more vintage titles in circulation now than at any time since the ’50s. Monumental labels like Prestige and Blue Note celebrated anniversaries this year, and the world again acknowledged the greatness of Duke Ellington, the unquestioned jazz artist of the century.
Indeed, Ellington’s example deserves close scrutiny: His music was always timely, yet never faddish; he incorporated numerous influences and sounds into his compositions without compromising or diluting the core; and he avoided easy labels and rigid categorizations. This is what the best performers do today as well, whether they’re Charlie Haden or Don Byron or Myra Melford.
Perhaps in the next century, jazz, blues, and gospel audiences will find common ground rather than continue retreating into separate enclaves; it’s sad that so little blues and gospel gets played on jazz radio, or that so much blues and gospel journalism ignores these styles’ connection to jazz. What’s more, these musics belong to the world; it’s destructive and illogical to continue fighting turf battles or to insist that women or Europeans or whites haven’t made significant contributions to jazz, blues, or gospel.
Regardless of these frustrations, 1999 was a rewarding year and offered plenty of music worth celebrating:
1. Charlie Haden & Quartet West, The Art of the Song (Verve) Beautiful vocals from Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson juxtaposed with stunning arrangements, concise yet magical solos, and inspired performances of vintage film and theatrical numbers.
2. Tie: Cassandra Wilson, Travelin’ Miles (Blue Note) and Diana Krall, When I Look in Your Eyes (Verve) Wilson is a vocal improviser and experimentalist, Krall a dynamic interpreter and glorious ballad stylist.
3. Corey Harris, Greens From the Garden (Alligator) Harris forever shattered notions that he’s merely a folkie revivalist with this eclectic collection, which also demonstrated his masterful vocal and guitar skills.
4. Bobby Womack, Back to My Roots (The Right Stuff) Once the guitarist for the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Womack returned to the church for possibly the finest album in his illustrious career.
5. Myra Melford, Above Blue (Arabesque) Her debts to mentor and main influence Cecil Taylor are now paid; Melford and comrades might be the best band working in jazz’s outside realm.
6. Charles Lloyd, Blues in the Night (ECM) Lloyd hasn’t played with such passion and verve since he set both the jazz and pop worlds on fire in the late ’60s.
7. Tie: Robert Cray, Take Your Shoes Off (Rykodisc) and Joe Louis Walker, Silvertone Blues (Verve) It’s interesting that both Cray and Walker made their edgiest, most inventive records in a year when they were no longer the blues flavors of the month.
8. Don Byron, Romance With the Unseen (Blue Note) Byron’s an unrepentant left-winger and musical maverick who not only doesn’t separate art from politics, he simply doesn’t care whether you like his music or his message.
9. Luther Allison, Live in Chicago (Alligator) Unrelenting vocals and whiplash guitar licks and riffs from the artist who finally hit his stride, then was derailed by death.
10. David Murray, Speaking in Tongues (Justin Time) The formidable Murray revisited his Albert Ayler connection, offering sizzling tenor forays within a sacred context, ably supported by an all-star vocal crew that included the wonderful Fontella Bass.
11. Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, “Freedom Jazz Dance,” from Freedom Jazz Dance (Delmark) Twenty-first century funk laced with avant-garde intensity.
12. Helen Baylor, “Awesome God,” from Helen Baylor Live (Verity) Chilling golden-age-style gospel vocals coupled with state-of-the-art choral arrangements and production.
13. Jeri Brown, “The Nearness of You,” from I’ve Got Your Number (Justin Time) Sultry, steamy material from the finest jazz vocalist working outside these borders (Canada).
14. John Jackson, “The Devil Wore a Hickory Shoe,” from Front Porch Blues (Alligator) Spirited finger-picking and jubilant gospel blues by the greatest living exponent of the Piedmont tradition.
15. Wynton Marsalis, “King Porter Stomp,” from Mr. Jelly Lord (Sony Classical) Someday the media harpies who label Marsalis a reactionary will finally acknowledge his excellence as a soloist and jazz repertory chronicler.
1. Duke Ellington, Centennial Edition (BMG) and Ellington at Newport (Legacy) The former, a multi-disc set, chronicles Ellington’s versatility and evolution. The latter, a double set, includes the bombastic Paul Gonsalves 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo & Crescendo in Blue.”
2. John Coltrane, The Complete Quartet Sessions (Impulse) While Coltrane’s tenor sax scorched the heavens, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones rampaged through the earth.
3. Albert King/Stevie Ray Vaughan, In Session (Fantasy/Stax) Though Stevie Ray Vaughan loved B.B. King and Otis Rush, Albert King was his greatest influence. Teacher and pupil got together in this previously unissued ’83 concert, and the results were mighty close to a draw.
4. Clara Ward & the Clara Ward Singers, Somebody Bigger Than You & I (Peacock/MCA) The Ward Sisters could rock the holy house with anyone, and Clara Ward’s booming voice almost blew out the church windows single-handedly.
5. Little Jimmy Scott, The Savoy Years & More (Savoy/Atlantic) Piercing falsetto and high-note acrobatics, dramatic flourishes, shattering climaxes, and remarkable phrasing by a jazz vocal genius.
6. Benny Goodman, The Complete 1938 Concert (Legacy) A landmark event and the coming-out party for both jazz and Goodman, the swing era’s clarinet champion.
7. Herbie Hancock, The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions (Blue Note) Hancock not only became a first-rate soloist during this decade, he emerged as a pivotal figure in jazz’s exploration of radical rhythmic concepts and experiments with electronics and alternate musical directions.
8. Various Artists, Central Avenue Sounds (Rhino) Transplanted New Orleans traditionalists, boogie pianists, blues wailers, swing-oriented bandleaders, and boppers all helped plot the course of West Coast jazz and R&B.
9. Muddy Waters, The Lost Tapes (Blind Pig) He wasn’t at his instrumental peak, but Waters was still a fiery vocalist on this newly unearthed collection of early ’70s material.
10. Various Artists, 20th Anniversary Collection (Earwig) They’ve never gotten as much publicity as some other labels, but this Chicago independent was cutting great material by unappreciated blues acts as early as ’79, among them Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, and Honeyboy Edwards.
Howard Mandel’s Future Jazz (Oxford) took book honors this year; he expertly interviewed several contemporary figures, letting them express without reservation their feelings about directions for the music in the year 2000 and beyond. John Storm Roberts’ exhaustive Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions (Schirmer) nicely chronicled the influence of Afro-Latin music on jazz and pop from the late-19th century to the present. Richard Sudhalter’s Lost Chords: White Musicians & Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945 (Oxford) wasn’t quite the controversial blockbuster everyone expected, but it was a generally authoritative look at numerous pre-bop players.
Other worthy books included Grant Green: Rediscovering the Forgotten Genius of Jazz Guitar by Sharony Green (Miller Freeman); Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie by Alyn Shipton (Oxford); Jazz Profiles: The Spirit of the Nineties by Carver Bernstein (Billboard); Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries by Bill Milkowski (Billboard); and Reminiscing in Tempo: The Life of Duke Ellington by Stuart Nicholson (Northeastern).
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