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Best of 2003

2004 may already be a couple weeks old but it's not too late to run down some of the highlights of 2003. While it seems that playing the time honored game of "things ain't what they used to be" is a perfectly nice thing to do for some jazz fans and critics, the joke is on them if they don't realize that there are plenty of great albums being made in the present tense. The following is by no means to be considered a complete list of the best of '03.

One trend that happily continued in 2003 is the continued development of some of the most innovative younger musicians. Twp Blue Note releases deserve special notice: Vibraphonist Stefon Harris' Grand Unification Theory, a big band excursion into quantum physics, is well-executed as it is boldly conceived, while Jason Moran's The Bandwagon is merely a casually brilliant live set ranging from his own originals to "Body and Soul," Bach to Afrika Bambaataa. Matthew Shipp's Equilibrium (Thirsty Ear) is as human sounding a record as the pianist has yet made, despite the presence of a DJ. Trumpeter Dave Douglas's Freak In (Bluebird) was the source of some controversy--essentially an update of On the Corner-era Miles, that's perhaps to be expected, though the racial overtones of much of the debate (Douglas is white) were rather disheartening. Tenor man Ned Otter's Powder Keg (two and four) is a hearty piece of straight ahead jazz, aided and abetted by a veteran rhythm section including Harold Mabern and (my favorite) the late Billy Higgins.

For fans of the avant garde, the biggest news had to be the reappearance of the Art Ensemble, who came back with two albums on two different labels (Pi and ECM). Another Pi release, Organic Resonance, reunited trumpeter Waddada Leo Smith with saxophonist Anthony Braxton. Pharoah Sanders' latest collaboration with Bill Laswell is With a Heartbeat (Evolver), and the two once again find new territory in which to integrate Sanders' powerful horn, in this case an ambient recording based on the rhythms of a heart that is really quite beautiful. Another Laswell production, violinist Lili Haydn's Light Blue Sun (Private Music) uses Sanders to good effect, as well as the diverse talents of Alice Coltrane and George Clinton.

Two CDs took Latin Jazz and combined it with other forms with impressive results. Saxophonist David Murray released Now is Another Time (Justin Time), recorded in Cuba with his "Latin Big Band"--a mix of local artists and such longtime associates as Craig Harris and Hamiett Bluiett. The Latin rhythms blend well with the open structure of Murray's compositions, showing that radical freedom can thrive in Castro's least when we are talking about music. Here in L.A., Poncho Sanchez took his longstanding infatuation with James Brown's music (along with the help of two of the JB Horns, Fred Wesley & Pee Wee Ellis) and turned it into the very entertaining Out of Sight (Concord Picante). Other guests on the album include Ray Charles & Billy Preston.

Wayne Shorter released his first studio album as a leader in nearly a decade, the fine, orchestrally oriented Algeria (Verve). Chick Corea's two disc live set Rendezvous in New York (Stretch/Concord) touched on many aspects of the great pianist's career and featured a who's who of artists, featuring everyone from Roy Haynes to Joshua Redman, Bobby McFerrin to Miroslav Vitous. Vitous's own Universal Syncopations (ECM) featured Cora along with such heavyweights as Jan Garbarek, John McLaughlin and Jack DeJohnette.

It's easy and tempting to talk about how great things were back when. Certainly it's easy with hindsight to say how great 1959 or whatever year was. But, you know what? There were a lot of great recordings made last year and jazz seems to be in pretty good shape as '04 begins.

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  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
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