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The Best New Jazz Of 2009 (So Far)

Jeff "Tain" Watts' sinister swing drumming leads Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride on his new CD, <em>Watts</em>.
Oliver Link
Courtesy of the artist
Jeff "Tain" Watts' sinister swing drumming leads Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride on his new CD, Watts.

Every year, it seems as if someone uncovers a reel-to-reel of Miles Davis eating a ham sandwich, and suddenly there's another super-deluxe reissue of Kind of Blue. That's not to say that these classics shouldn't be re-examined and enjoyed by old and new generations; it's just that jazz continues to move forward.

Take Five was founded on the idea that there's as much to be learned from the classics as there is from the scene now. But there's still a remarkable assortment of great jazz music being made today, by young lions and old giants alike. Every few months, we'll invite our contributing jazz partners at WBGO, WDUQ and Jazz24 to pick their favorite new jazz records of the moment. Our first installment features everything from a 31-year-old post-bopper to a 68-year-old monster-squawker.

What's your favorite new jazz album in 2009, so far? Tell us in the comments below.

For more entries in the Take Five series, click here. And don't forget to subscribe to the Jazz Notes newsletter.

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The Best New Jazz Of 2009 (So Far)

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Imagine if the irrepressible warden of groove handed his fellow jazz all-stars the keys to the asylum. In one sense, that's just what Jeff "Tain" Watts does. His playmates at the funhouse -- Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride -- are all releasing their own stellar recordings this year, but Watts is the sleeper. In a set of originals imbibed with a sometimes loose formality, Watts and company present a noodle shop full of hearty meals -- a slab of ribs (including a conversation between the devil and George W. Bush's agent), all without the plain white toast. In "Dancin' 4 Chicken," home-sliced cornpone becomes a heated set of exchanges, sans piano, driven by Tain's relentlessly sinister swing. You probably won't hear this on the radio, which is a pity, because these guys have a way to make the ridiculous sound sublime. -- Josh Jackson, WBGO

Full Blast

Some of Peter Brotzmann's best records read like sinister metal album titles: Machine Gun, Dried Rat Dog, Dare Devil. And, for the most part, there's a shared aesthetic between the German's gruff saxophone skronk and the punishing shred of a thrash-metal band like Slayer. You could think of his new trio, Full Blast, as Last Exit minus guitarist Sonny Sharrock, but the focus is different here. Last Exit was a sprawling exploration of noise, but Full Blast's rhythm section keeps things maniacally tight: Michael Wertmuller injects muscular improv violence between honest-to-God blast beats, while electric bassist Marino Pliakas plays with ferocious speed. In tandem, Brotzmann's death-defying reed work plays off his cohorts with more dizzying trills and less of the elongated squawks for which he's known. More than any of Brotzmann's recent small groups, Full Blast feels like a complete unit, a unit hellbent on destruction. -- Lars Gotrich, NPR Music

Sean Jones

Trumpeter Sean Jones is a busy man, so fans are lucky he was able to get into the studio to record another solid CD. Jones is an assistant music professor at Duquesne University; he just accepted the position of Interim Artistic Director of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, and he's working with Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center to revitalize the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. He also finds time to play gigs around town and around the country, including with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Even though Jones is so on-the-go, The Search Within sounds like a lot of time and love was put into it. "Sean's Jones Comes Down" is one of two tracks on the CD not penned by the trumpeter; it was written by Frank Foster, in reference to Sean's "Jones" to come to New York. -- Shaunna Morrison Machosky, WDUQ

Ann Hampton Callaway

On Ann Hampton Callaway's new disc, At Last, there's an element of fearlessness in her decision to cover songs that have already been interpreted thousands of times (e.g., "Over the Rainbow" and "Lazy Afternoon"), as well as take on tunes than have been culturally embedded by a particular recording (Etta James' "At Last" and Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide"). You can really fall on your face if you can't make this material distinctive and soulful. Callaway passes the test on all counts. She also recorded a couple of original tunes that aren't too shabby, either. Those following her recording career through the years have seen her getting better, deeper and bolder. -- Nick Francis, Jazz24

Miles Okazaki

If you stumbled blindly into "Waves," from guitarist Miles Okazaki's sophomore album Generations, you might be lured in by Miguel Zenon's strained ruminations on alto sax. Eventually, you'd hear a different saxophonist — that'd be Christof Knoche ratcheting up the intensity. By then, you'll also have noticed the groove accumulating, such that when Dave Binney takes his solo turn, he's charging headlong toward a heroic climax of wordless vocals, rhythm guitar and cymbal-crashing madness. But the rabbit hole runs much deeper: Generations is Okazaki's attempt to "create forms for improvisation that imitate aspects of the natural world" — like, say, waves — filtered through mathematics and advanced music theory. Of course, the joy of Generations is that while cosmic arithmetists will have a field day, there's plenty for anyone who just likes to hear great soloists burn while tumbling rhythms wash overhead. -- Patrick Jarenwattananon, NPR Music