The Best Jazz and Blues of 2004

I’ve been compiling "Best Of" lists for most of the 25-plus years that I’ve writing about jazz and blues. This year’s lists cover the wide spectrum of music that excites my ears, and I hope there is something here that might inspire some added listening for readers. You’ll note that Pyeng Threadgill, the most exciting new artist of the year, is listed in both the jazz and blues categories. The daughter of the great Henry Threadgill recorded a tribute to blues icon Robert Johnson, but really defies categorization. I’ve always appreciated those artists that move the music forward, though there are plenty straight ahead gems on my baker’s dozen lists, too.

Best Jazz of 2004

1. Stefon Harris & Blackout: Evolution (Blue Note). Stefon Harris is a young vibraphone player headed to the jazz Parthenon. Classically trained, bit by the jazz bug and well versed in hip hop he has an invigorating approach that straddles the fence between the tradition and the future that sweeps my ears off their feet.

2. Geri Allen: The Life Of A Song (Telarc). A graduate of the fertile Detroit jazz scene of the mid-1970s, pianist Harris studied with Marcus Belgrave, the Dean of Detroit Jazz. One of the most adventurous players on the world stage, she’s joined on this trio date by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

3. Patricia Barber: A Fortnight In France (Blue Note). The Chicagoan reminds me of a cross between Joni Mitchell and Laurie Anderson. Everything on the recording is a stunner, from her original semi cacophonous "White World" to a surprisingly reconfigured cover of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." Everything here is simply amazing.

4. Pyeng Threadgill: Sweet Home The Music of Robert Johnson (Random Chance). As unique an album as I’ve ever heard, this is the Debut Disc of the Year for these ears. Cellos and Robert Johnson don’t usually get mentioned in the same breath, as on her version of his "When You Got A Good Friend." The tunes will challenge, cajole and celebrate your conceptions of jazz and blues.

5. Frode Berg: Dig It! (Nagel Heyer). This Norwegian bassist (acoustic and electric) surrounds himself with phenomenal players (sax, piano, drums). From straight ahead to nearly outside, the playing, composing and arranging are first rate. The cover of Coltrane’s "Giant Steps" is exciting and the original material just magnificent.

6. Louis Smith: Louisville (Steeple Chase). Louis spent many years as an instructor in the jazz program at the University of Michigan, and played with Miles, Dizzy, Cannonball and other major figures along the way. Now in his early 70s, he’s retired from academia and fully immersed in the art. His post-bop brilliance shines on every song on this superb disc. He’s one of the most melodic trumpeters recording today and has recorded the finest jazz trumpet disc of the year.

7. James Carter: Live at Bakers (Warner Bros.). Baker’s is one of the oldest jazz clubs in the world, but I don’t recall any other major label album being recorded there. Detroiter Carter no doubt spent a lot of time absorbing the sounds as a youngster (well, younger than he still is). He’s joined by saxists David Murray (another Detroit monster) and Johnny Griffin on a jaw-dropping set that runs the gamut of Jimmy Forrest and Oscar Pettiford burners to "I Can’t Get Started." The best straight-ahead disc he’s recorded in years.

8. Mike Wofford Trio: Live at Athenaeum Jazz (Capri). San Diego-based Wofford is one of the most captivating pianists I’ve had the pleasure of seeing perform. This performance, captured in suburban La Jolla, presents the master (whose resume includes stints as accompanist to Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald), along with Peter Washington (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums), in brilliant form in a program that covers, among others, Ellington, Berlin and Sting.

9. Satoko Fujii Quartet: Zephyros (Natsat). A masterful pianist who splits her time between Japan and New York, Julliard-trained Fujii and her quartet challenge and soothe, excite and incite. "Clear Sky For Christopher," with its frantic calliope feel, is my favorite tune on a disc full of complex and intense music.

10. McCoy Tyner: Illuminations (Telarc). The pianist who gained his initial fame as a member of John Coltrane’s quartet 40 years ago is still an imposing presence. Now in his mid-60s, he’s as agile and quick-witted as ever. The ever impressive Gary Bartz joins the master here, as do Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, first-rate players all.

11. Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Paseo (Blue Note). The Cuban pianist is extraordinarily diverse in his approach and surrounds himself with impressive players. There is a dancing, percussive feel to most of the tracks with electric and acoustic piano sharing space in a program that incorporates funk as liberally as swaying Cuban rhythms and outside figures that tantalize.

12. Ed Thigpen: #1 (Stunt). Thigpen was the drummer with Oscar Peterson a few decades ago and still drives a band with the force of a young man. From the post-bop blues of the original opener, "Shake It Out," to his closing "Fast Train," on which the drummer trades fours with Thomas Franck’s tenor and Jens Winther’s scalding trumpet, there isn’t a tune here that doesn’t impress mightily in the hands of this dazzling Danish quintet.

13. Luis Munoz: Vida (Pelin) Costa Rican-born percussionist/drummer Munoz, now a resident of Santa Barbara, California released what is hands down the coolest Latin jazz disc of the year. The compositions and arrangements, tender to fiery, are impressive and the performances, particularly by Munoz, are phenomenal.

Best Blues of 2004

1. Charlie Musselwhite: Sanctuary (Real World). From a cover of Savoy Brown’s "Train To Nowhere" to an eerie cover of Randy Newman’s "Burn Down The Cornfield" to Sonny Landreth’s dark "Shootin’ For the Moon," this is decades beyond his debut album of nearly 40 years ago, in more ways than one. Music needs to grow to flourish and its refreshing to see a veteran at the vanguard of that growth.

2. Tad Robinson: Did You Ever Wonder? (Severn). Everything on the disc is impressive. Vocalists this good don’t come down the pike too often. "They Say," a Memphis-style chill getter, is one of the best songs of the year. The Chicagoan conjures up the soulful blues of Al Green and Sam Cooke on the disc and should get a WC Handy this year.

3. Ronnie Earl: Now My Soul (Stony Plain). One of the great guitarists of our time, Ronnie’s music crosses comfortably between jazz and blues, with the spirituality of Santana. On this disc, however, there’s more blues than there has been in a longtime. The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson has the lion’s share of vocals and the instrumental numbers send shivers.

4. Otis Taylor: Double V (Telarc). Colorado-based Taylor is an African American who explores more contemporary and historic social and racial issues than anyone in the business. His albums are always moving, but this one is just extraordinary.

5. Pyeng Threadgill: Sweet Home The Music of Robert Johnson (Random Chance). So chillingly impressive is her voice, her approach, her vision, her arrangements that she defies categorization. Ellington said there is only good music and bad music. There are obviously graduations, as well. This is an extraordinary recording.

6. Louise Hoffsten: Knackebrod Blues (Memphis International). Hoffsten is a popular folk and pop singer in Sweden who wrote a book (entitled "Blues") and recorded an album after being diagnosed with MS and watching her husband walk out on her. The blues recognize no border. On her "Belly Up Blues" you’ll hear her elastic clarity, on Memphis Slim’s "I Guess I’m A Fool" you hear how well she works in the acoustic context and on Frankie Miller’s "The Seduction of Sweet Louise" her adaptability to high powered electricity shines.

7. Rishell and Raines: Goin’ Home (Artemis). Paul Rishell is a phenomenal guitarist and vocalist. Annie Raines is a superb harmonica player and vocalist who plays a bit of mandolin and piano, too. The combo has been impressive for the past decade; this is just another in a series of superb albums. Originals share space with tunes from Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey and others. Back porch blues for the connoisseur.

8. Guitar Shorty: Watch Your Back (Alligator). Guitar Shorty was an early influence on both Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix so he knows about volume and high intensity and never fails to amaze. He’s been recording for 40 years and still sounds better than the vast majority of electric blues players out there. As real deals go, he’s right up there with the best.

9. Nick Curran: Player (Blind Pig). This is the second album for young Nick Curran, who has captured the early 50s jump blues with more authority than just about anyone out there. His cover of Iggy & the Stooges' "No Fun," one of the highlights of the disc, proves he’s got a great sense of humor, too.

10. Amos Garrett: Acoustic Album (Stony Plain). Canadian Garrett played with Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, Maria Muldaur (on the "Midnight At The Oasis" sessions), Anne Murray ("Snowbird") and a bunch of other folks over the past 40 years. This all acoustic set, his first in 25 years, is chock full of gems, including tunes from Jelly Roll Morton, Leadbelly, and Hoagy Carmichael, though the best are from his own pen.

11. Dr. John: N’Awlinz: Dis Dat or D Udda (Blue Note). The best Dr. John album in at least 10 years, this is a smile inducer of the first order, with impressive guest stars and strange arrangements aplenty. "Lay My Burden Down" with Mavis Staples and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, "Such A Much" with Willie Nelson and "Hen Layin' Rooster" with B.B. King and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. It just don’t get no mo’ doctor.

12. Duke Robillard: Blue Mood (Stony Plain). One of the most important guitarist out there, he was the man who formed Roomful of Blues 30 years ago. His music straddles the line between jazz and blues exquisitely. This is his tribute to the great Texas bluesmeister T-Bone Walker. It is, naturally, a masterpiece.

13. Bo Keys: The Royal Sessions (Yellow Dog). An instrumental album from a group of legendary players (from the Bar Kays, Isaac Hayes and the Blues Brothers) that combines elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues, hip hop and pizzazz. This is the best album of its kind since well, no one has ever done an album this cool before.

Support for recording artists is always appreciated, but by all means get out there and support your local live musicians, as well. Advocate for smoke free clubs your lungs and the musicians on stage, will thank you. Here’s hoping for a peace-filled 2005.

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