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Best Jazz CD's of 2000

Friday, December 29, 2000

By Rick Nowlin and Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


If you're a contemporary jazz lover, 1999 was a disaster for recorded music. WJJJ switched to "jammin' oldies" -- disco and old-school funk -- in May that year, and the records that were released were, to be blunt, lousy. This year, by contrast, was much better, with the revived WZUM (1590 AM, if you're looking) hopefully filling the radio void in the near future and the releases proving to be of better quality this time around. Strangely enough, most of the best went retro, which might tell you the present state of the music. Here are the best recordings of 2000:

1. "Smooth Africa," various artists (Heads Up International) Based on this compilation, apparently they do play some pretty good "c-jazz" in southern Africa. It's hard to say if any of the musicians involved, most of whom you've probably never heard of, will ever make it big in the States, but the CD definitely is worth listening to. Native South Africans Hugh Masekela and Jonathan Butler, stars in their own right, make appearances, as do Americans and Heads Up artists Joe McBride and Andy Narell.

2. "The Definitive Collection: The Jeff Lorber Masters," Jeff Lorber (Arista) Wanna hear Kenny G play some music for a change? Pick up this "greatest hits" package from his old keyboard-playing boss, now an L.A. studio hack who has also worked with a number of R&B and hip-hop artists. The Philadelphia native who first emerged from Portland, Ore., offers 16 "blasts from the past" from a time when the amalgamation of jazz, rock and funk had a chance to get on commercial radio. Be prepared to remember how it used to be in the late 1970s and early '80s -- this is "the good stuff," as one of my fraternity brothers said then.

3. "Shake It Up," Boney James/Rick Braun (Warner Brothers) Two of the bright lights of "smooth jazz," who have worked on each other's recordings regularly for the past few years, formally team up. Good thing, too. They actually sound better together than apart because of the interplay between them, a major ingredient in traditional jazz but a concept too often ignored in often-overprocessed smooth jazz. Updates on the classics "Grazin' in the Grass" and "Song for My Father" score, and Fourplay guests on what turns out to be the weakest cut, "Love's Like That," which is still decent.

4. "Inner Voice," Scott Hart (Mother West) Thanks to the Baltimore-based guitarist, it might now be safe to play old-school jazz-fusion again. With chops to kill for, the cat burns on everything, as do the people behind him. He also demonstrates an ear for melody that you can actually hear and feel. The next John McLaughlin or Al DiMeola? Probably irrelevant. But I would like to hear him play acoustic, just to see how he sounds. That was my only complaint. The intensity of the production will keep it off the airwaves, but ... well, we won't go there.

5. "Voices of Other Times," Brian Auger's Oblivion Express (Miramar) Once again, it's time for a trip into the past, back when music could be played on the radio without worrying about fitting a preconceived format. Organist Auger surrounds himself with new talent, including two of his children, and new ideas, but he still produces that classic Hammond sound he popularized back in the late 1960s when the fusion of jazz with rock was practically unheard of. Welcome back from oblivion, Brian.


1. Jason Moran, "Facing Left" (Blue Note) He's young, but pianist Jason Moran continues to refine the knowledge and experience gained from Greg Osby, Jaki Byard and others. He has taken the best characteristics of some of the most profound pianists. But he has revamped his approach into something uniquely his own. Teamed with bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, the trio maintains one foot in the tradition while demonstrating a knack for freewheeling expression and a command of modern harmony.

2. Rodney Whitaker, "The Brooklyn Session, Ballad and Blues" (Criss Cross) Rodney Whitaker has quietly emerged as a great young bassist, helping to reshape the rich legacy of jazz while paying close attention to the nuances that will shape its future. "Ballads and Blues" is his dedication to the memories of bassists Paul Chambers and George Duvivier, but the recording also provides glimpses into his own musical personality, which includes hints of the late Milt Hinton and others who have come before him.

3. Chet Baker, "Dreamy Dispatches" (Pacific Jazz Records) How could so much beauty come from so much turbulence? That's the question one must ask when confronted with the music of trumpeter Chet Baker. Though besieged by unrelenting demons, he was nevertheless able to extract from his instrument a beautiful sonorous aesthetic. Recorded in Los Angeles and Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1954, "Dreamy Dispatches" finds Baker constructing graceful solos throughout, especially on "Lover Man."

4. Jonah Jones, "Jumpin' With Jonah" (Capital) For listeners not immersed in the swing revival, "Jumpin' With Jonah" will seem worlds apart from much of what's being performed and recorded these days. However, those who appreciate jazz as dance music will find this timeless, tightly arranged collection -- mostly classics -- a rewarding lesson in jazz history.

5. Johnny Griffin, "In & Out" (Dreyfuss Jazz) Pianist Martial Solal and tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin's places in jazz history are assured. Their distinguished contributions to an enormous amount of recordings have seen to that. But the two crafty veterans (both 72) aren't content to rest on their laurels. On "In & Out," their latest recording, the two strike a beautiful balance between the heartfelt and heart-filled.

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