Posted by: russdavis | January 28, 2013

Chick Corea, MOJA Man Of The Year (Again) & Other 2012 Trends In Jazz!

MOJA logo (CP)CompressedI write this piece at a time when most people have long ago put away their “Best Of” lists for the year just passed. I mean it’s almost time to buy Valentine’s Day cards and candy. I, like many others, produced and published my “MOJA Radio Top 20 of 2012” list but I wanted to take one more look at that list and think about what it represents about the current trends in Modern Jazz and what it portends for the future of the music. To those who haven’t heard MOJA Radio or its predecessor on satellite radio, Beyond Jazz, it might be useful to explain that MOJA means more than simply MOdern JAzz abbreviated. It is a brand that represents my specific vision of what this music is and though it may seem like a nebulous thing to many it’s something that is very clear to me. I hope that as you read further and peruse the list of my top releases of the year you’ll get the idea a bit more clearly without my trying to explain the almost inexplicable “X Factor” that qualifies something as being MOJA.

Chick Corea 2013I begin with the man who leads the band that topped the chart for the second year in a row. He’s Chick Corea, and with four major releases I wonder if any jazz man has ever had a year so prolific and varied as 2012 for the man from Chelsea, Massachusetts? The year began with the release of Further Explorations, the 2-disc, live trio recording in celebration of the great Bill Evans recorded live at New York City’s Blue Note with former Bill Evans Trio alumni members Eddie Gomez and the late Paul Motian. I attended one of those performances on the night when John Scofield was the special guest and I can attest to the fact that the atmosphere was one of history and artistry at its highest level. Following that release came The Continents, Chick’s second piano concerto for jazz quintet & chamber orchestra. I was invited to come to the New York’s Manhattan Center Studios in June of 2011 when the work was recorded with hand-picked players including the jazz quintet featuring Tim Garland, Hans Glawischnig, Marcus Gilmore and Steve Davis, and members of the Harlem String Quartet and Imani Winds conducted by Steven Mercurio. Chick was channeling his “inner Mozart” for this work, as he’s often known to do with music of a “classical” nature, and adding another masterwork to the list of fine third stream, jazz-classical hybrid works that dot jazz history. Another mostly acoustic work marked another milestone in Chick’s glorious career. With the release of Hot House Chick and long time associate Gary Burton, joined by members of The Harlem String Quartet, released what is in essence a reprise of their original piano-vibes duo of 4 decades ago. It was a much appreciated work considering the multiple Grammy nominations it received. All three of these works receive airplay on MOJA Radio, but it’s another of Chick’s four releases in 2012 that topped the chart.

RTF-The Mothership Returns CompressedWith the release of Return To Forever: The Mothership Returns, Chick and his associates in the latest incarnation of the super-group born in the fusion era put a fitting cap on a two-year celebration of touring and recording with the group that took on a new identity as RTF IV, the fourth edition of Return To Forever with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale joining Chick, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. It was Lenny who is credited with most of the work of reviewing dozens of hours of recordings to choose the right performances that would best represent the finest moments of this grand tour and enterprise. The three-disc (2 CD’s and 1 DVD) set could be thought of as simply a collection of new versions of classic songs. After having seen the band play three different times in Montreal, New York and Austin, Texas I have to beg to differ with that bit of apparently conventional estimation. As Frank Gambale told me, “No one’s ever heard me play these songs,” and that certainly made them new. Jean-Luc Ponty, the added spice that brought this project to a new place as well, was the most famous secret weapon any band has ever had it seems to me. His brilliant piece “Renaissance” may have been the highlight of the entire show as it conjured a spirit of palpable peace each night. Another aspect of this work that makes it more than a collection of “oldies” is that each night the performance was different. It’s the nature of improvisation and the definition of what truly is jazz of course, and who better than these great masters to reiterate that fact night after night. The energy, the groove, the power, the magnificence of the compositions and the playing and the spirit of the project itself plus the players involved made this the # 1 work of the year in MOJA, a defining project that is both classic and modern at the same time.

 

Now, take a look at the complete list of The Top 20 of 2012 as heard on MOJA Radio and let me give you some more thoughts on what made these releases the most important of the year in helping define what MOJA truly is.

  1. RETURN TO FOREVER…THE MOTHERSHIP RETURNS (EAGLE RECORDS)
  2. JENNY SCHEINMAN…MISCHIEF & MAYHEM (HAMMER & STRING)
  3. JACK DeJOHNETTE…SOUND TRAVELS (E ONE)
  4. JOHN McLAUGHLIN…NOW HERE THIS (ABSTRACT LOGIX)
  5. ERIK DEUTSCH…DEMONIO TECLADO (HAMMER & STRING)
  6. FORGAS BAND PHENOMENA…ACTE V (CUNEIFORM)
  7. KURT ROSENWINKEL…STAR OF JUPITER (WOMMUSIC)
  8. RODRIGO Y GABRIELA…AREA 52 (ATO RECORDS)
  9. KENNY GARRETT…SEEDS FROM THE UNDERGROUND (MACK AVENUE)
  10. TOHPATI & BERTIGA…RIOT (MOONJUNE RECORDS)
  11. BRIAN BROMBERG…BROMBERG PLAYS HENDRIX (HEADS UP RECORDS)
  12. MIKE STERN…ALL OVER THE PLACE (HEADS UP RECORDS
  13. PAT METHENY UNITY BAND…UNITY BAND (NONESUCH RECORDS)
  14. TODD CLOUSER…SELECTIONS IN GARAGE JAZZ (ROYAL POTATO FAMILY)
  15. TIZER…DOWNBEAT (JLK PRODUCTIONS)
  16. JEFF COFFIN & THE MUTET…INTO THE AIR (EAR UP RECORDS)
  17. JACKY TERRASSON…GOUACHE (UNIVERSAL MUSIC FRANCE)
  18. BILL EVANS…DRAGONFLY (www.billevansax.com)
  19. ESPERANZA SPALDING…RADIO MUSIC SOCIETY (CONCORD RECORDS)
  20. THE BAD PLUS…MADE POSSIBLE (E ONE)

Jack DeJohnette with Russ 1The list falls into three categories for me as I look at three generations of artists, the long established legends, the middle generation and the newcomers.  Jack DeJohnette told me backstage at the New York Blue Note before his performance there with his current group that his Sound Travels release was a reflection of the fact that he loves “strong grooves and great melodies,” and there were lots of both on the album that helped mark a triumphant 70th birthday celebration all year long. John McLaughlin’s latest group, The Fourth Dimension, helped him create a powerful work of 21st Century Fusion that gave the great electric guitar master a chance to prove again that he has the fasted, flying fingers in jazz on his late year addition to the list titled Now Here This! Two other guitarists who happen to be a decade younger than Jack and John but no less legendary, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, released brilliant works in 2012 that continued on a path that both have now established stylistically. Mike’s album All Over The Place turned the title that is a phrase oftentimes used in a derogatory manner to define exactly what his approach is, to play many styles at the highest level and with great confidence and spirit, and, as usual, with an array of talented compatriots. Pat Metheny’s Unity Band release, featuring long-time associate Antonio Sanchez with newcomers to the Metheny galaxy of collaborators Ben Williams and Chris Potter gave Pat a platform on which to continue his investigation of his own unique guitar sound, the use of Orchestrion electronics, presentation of jazz anthems and his first collaboration with a saxophonist since his time with Michael Brecker. I witnessed performances by this band in Newport and Detroit. If there is a more popular figure in jazz today than Pat I’d like to know who that is. Another veteran player with a great pedigree, chops and vision, saxophonist Bill Evans, continued his investigation of jazz and blue grass with the album Dragonfly which received far too little attention in my humble opinion. Europeans have been eating up this unique presentation from Mr. Evans over the past decade and I was thrilled to get a chance to spotlight his latest effort for the American and worldwide audience online on MOJA Radio as well as on my Voice of America program Jazz America!

Jenny Scheinman & Russ (NYC-20 Feb 12)As for the “middle generation” of great MOJA artists there is not one who I love more than the great violinist Jenny Scheinman. The combination of world, rock, swing, groove and playing at the highest level with her associates Nels Cline, Todd Sickafoose and Jim Black as the band Mischief & Mayhem produced an album of the same name of great variety and artistry that became the # 2 release of the year in MOJA. In addition to performing right up to the time of the birth of her second child, a beautiful daughter, and immediately afterwards, Jenny presented her own music in various performances I had a chance to see in New York as well as playing in multiple settings with her old friend Bill Frisell, who I saw at the Newport Festival performing in a duo as well as with Bill’s band in celebration of John Lennon. Other established artists with brilliant work in 2012 included hard-grooving keyboardist Erik Deutsch who set up shop in a Brooklyn loft to record his Demonio Teclado the old fashioned way, live and very “alive!” Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Star Of Jupiter helped further his legend as one of MOJA’s most inventive guitarists and writers, while no one could ever underestimate the composing ability of one of the great writers and saxmen in jazz today, the great Kenny Garrett, who released an album titled Seeds From The Underground dedicated to those who came before him that inspired him most deeply. His performance in his hometown at the Detroit Jazz Fest was a highlight of the year for myself and anyone else who witnessed the inspired show! If there is anyone who is under-rated after a long and prosperous career it may be west coast bassist Brian Bromberg who released three great projects during the year including an album of Brazilian jazz, and a fabulous collection of his own compositions. But the one that made the MOJA chart blends modern style and classic rock in a jazz setting, oftentimes a combination that makes what I call MOJA, and in this case at a very high level on the album Bromberg Plays Hendrix.  There were two keyboard-dominated works from established artists that made my top 20 this year featuring original material from great players that have certainly carved out a unique place for themselves stylistically. Jacky Terrasson released Gouache on the Universal Music France label and his homeland of France is all over this work with delightful results, while the trio known for taking pop songs of the day and making them their own, The Bad Plus, released an album of all originals with a little touch of electronics mixed in with their usual acoustic presentation. The album Made Possible is as good as I’ve heard from these three guys from the upper Midwest and if there’s more where this came from I’m ready to listen. Though she’s still a youngster, bassist, composer, bandleader and vocalist Esperanza Spalding has established herself as one of the most compelling and popular artists in MOJA with any number of high level collaborations and her astounding “Best New Artist Of The Year” Grammy award a couple of years ago. Her Radio Music Society album furthers the upward trajectory of her brilliant career and features some of the current greats of jazz coming to play with her as well as a collection of originals and remakes of modern classics all exhibiting her unique vocal presentation.  Saxophonist Jeff Coffin, with his own band he calls The Mu’Tet and their 2012 album Into The Air, helped separate Jeff from his work with the Flecktones and the “Jamband Movement” he’s been associated with in a major way as he and the band showed off some great writing and serious jazz chops that portend great things to come in the future!

Finally, the newer generation of artists and the releases they presented in 2012 may have done more to define what MOJA is all about than anything else on this year’s chart. Anyone who knows the philosophy of MOJA radio or my programming in general knows that I am always on the lookout for the new sounds, rhythms, instrumentation, concepts, etc in jazz. Occasionally I hear what I think will be the future of the music, sometimes in short passages in a piece or in the general spirit of a project. I heard a little bit of all of that in the following. The French large ensemble known as Forgas Band Phenomena on the album Acte V blended a modern big band sound with the classic rock-jazz approach of the “Canterbury Scene” of the 1970’s in England with spectacular results. If you remember Soft Machine, early Allan Holdsworth or National Health and imagine them going big band you have what I’m talking about. After the duo known as Rodrigo Y Gabriela left their thrash metal band in Mexico City and re-located to Dublin, Ireland they became European sensations. When they decided to record their “jazz” album they enlisted a large ensemble from Havana known as C.U.B.A. (Collective Universal Band Association) and musicians from all over the world, recording in Havana, Los Angeles and Paris. The results are Area 52 and it’s music that is astounding, full of energy, great playing and modernity. The young guitarist from Indonesia known as Tohpati released his latest work titled Riot with a new group he calls Bertiga. This young guy knows what garage band jazz is all about as he simply turns it on, turns it up and lets it rip in a display of new fusion guitar jazz that would make McLaughlin smile! Tohpati records for the forward-thinking MoonJune Records label that is a constant source for new MOJA from literally all over the world. Speaking of Garage Jazz, the young American musician who moved to Baja, Mexico to gain new inspiration, Todd Clouser, did it again, meaning produced masterful MOJA on his album Selections In Garage Jazz, again with the help of greats like Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet. Another newcomer who caught our ear in 2012 was keyboardist Lao Tizer whose terrific composing and great playing was on display on the album Downbeat that again helped define what the present and future of jazz is for this second century of the music’s history.

There you have a quick look at the greats of MOJA and their wonderful works from 2012. At the time of this writing I’ve already found about a dozen new releases that are again breaking new ground in MOdern JAzz including works from more newcomers and established greats who are going about the business of breaking new ground for themselves. I’m just very happy to be here to pass the good news along to those who want to join me in this constantly evolving celebration!

Russ Davis

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