From Barretto and Bach on to Ken Burns’ Opus

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

The best of the year in jazz is a week late, folks. Sorry ‘bout that. But there’s a plus to the tardy arrival, and that’s the fortunate fact that the list hasn’t been squeezed into a 10-best format. Given the high quality and the far-ranging styles of the efforts that arrived in 2000, it would have been hard, indeed, to limit the choices to an arbitrary number.

So here they are, a personal list that wound up as the year’s 13 best albums. But whatever the number, it is a lineup that firmly reflects the vitality, creativity and diversity energizing jazz at the opening of the 21st century.

* Ray Barretto, “Portraits in Jazz and Clave” (RCA Victor). The legendary percussionist has been bringing jazz and Latin rhythms together for decades, and this is an especially appealing example of his capacity for musical synthesis. Several Ellington numbers (“The Mooche,” “Cottontail”) and pieces by Thelonious Monk (“I Mean You”), Wayne Shorter (“Go”) and John Coltrane (“Like Sonny”) are among the highlights, with sterling soloing from Kenny Burrell, Joe Lovano and Steve Turre.

* Uri Caine Ensemble, “The Goldberg Variations” (Winter & Winter Records). Caine’s ambitious musical odyssey has already taken him through jazz explorations of Mahler, Wagner and Schumann. But his take on the seminal J.S. Bach work is a marvel of musical chance-taking. Caine includes 70 variations (well beyond Bach’s original 30), moving through ragtime, bop, free jazz and New Orleans, as well as his personal views of the original variations. It may sound like musical heresy in description, but in performance it works strikingly well--a two-CD musical encounter between genres that Bach himself would probably have found enormously entertaining.


* Eva Cassidy, “Time After Time” (Blix Street Records). Definitions become virtually useless to describe the singing of Cassidy, who died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 33. Sounding at times like a country singer, at other times like a folkie, and on yet other occasions like a blues or gospel performer, she moves comfortably through all those areas. But her phrasing, her melodic invention, her blues-based articulation and her innate sense of swing position her talents firmly within the jazz orbit. Cassidy never recorded for a major label, and Blix Street has assembled a number of albums produced with minimal budgets, often drawn from live performances. This collection spotlights her ability to take songs associated with other artists and claim them as her own, in this case Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” Listening to her sumptuous sound and remarkable musicality, one can only ponder, sadly, what she might have done in settings that better matched her skills. And it’s worth checking out Cassidy’s other collections, especially “Songbird” and “Live at Blues Alley,” also on Blix Street.

* Bob Dorough, “Too Much Coffee Man” (Blue Note). Dorough is a certifiable vocal jazz original, instantly recognizable in both sound and substance. He swings with reckless abandon in a rendering of “The Coffee Song” while moving easily into tenderness with his own poignant “There’s Never Been a Day” and touching irony in “Yesterday, I Made Your Breakfast.” An album filled--predictably, given Dorough’s seemingly unlimited imagination--with musical delights.

* Joao Gilberto, “Joao Voz e Violao,” (Verve). Gilberto was the Charlie Parker of Brazilian music, the pathfinder in a musical breakthrough that found common ground between samba rhythms and jazz harmonies. His inventive combination of offbeat guitar strumming and floating vocal lines was the literal foundation of bossa nova and, as such, had a powerful impact upon American jazz, as well. This new collection, a spare--even starkly minimal--rendering of Brazilian tunes (including classics such as “Desafinado” and “Chega de Saudade”), is a stunning example of a still-potent musical genius in action.

* Dave Holland, “Prime Directive” (ECM). Holland’s world-class bass-playing skills are matched here by his solid group leadership. His ensemble’s unusual instrumentation--Chris Potter’s saxophones, Robin Eubanks’ trombone and Steve Nelson’s vibes--affords a colorful palette of musical sounds. And Holland uses them extraordinarily well, combining the aural textures with offbeat meters and superb soloing.


* Charles Lloyd, “The Water Is Wide” (ECM). Lloyd’s career has been filled with ups and downs, periods of high visibility alternating with episodes of reclusiveness. But the bottom line is that he is now producing, both live and on recordings, some of the finest playing of his career. This latest outing features Lloyd with a sterling ensemble--Brad Mehldau, John Abercrombie, Billy Higgins and Larry Grenadier--performing material embracing originals, Ellington tunes and the Scots folk-song title number. Despite a fairly placid, meditative atmosphere, the recording is driven by subtle layers of swing, enhanced by the consistently exploratory qualities of the improvising.

* Jason Moran, “Facing Left” (Blue Note). The 25-year-old pianist makes a convincing case for himself in this intriguing collection as one of the potentially important new jazz voices. Gifted with facile technique, he refuses to be locked solely into bebop-style playing. Equally fascinating is the evidence of rapidly growing composition skills, with a set of pieces--some under three minutes long--as effective for their intellectual foundations as they are for their sheer musical appeal. Framing his work in a surprisingly mature artistic fashion, Moran already understands when to sketch and when to fill in all the details.

* Charlie Parker, “Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings, 1944-1948" (Savoy). Charlie Parker’s playing in this seminal period in his too-brief life provided the essential vocabulary of post-World War II jazz--a vocabulary that continues to be fundamental to the music today. Virtually every track included in this invaluable eight-CD box is a classic--from “Billie’s Bounce” and “Ko-Ko” to “Parker’s Mood” and “Donna Lee"--with the inclusion of alternate tracks providing an overview of the Parker improvisation process in action.

* Danilo Perez, “Motherland” (Verve). The Panamanian pianist has assembled an international lineup of players and singers for this tribute to the indigenous rhythms and dance forms of his native country. The results are musically elegant and rhythmically compelling, an unexpectedly synergistic combination of disparate creative elements. Perez effectively avoids musical pastiche, firmly retaining his jazz roots, driving his ensemble in a fashion that will appeal to any jazz listener, while respecting and honoring the Panamanian elements that he has included, in such integrative fashion, in his overall compositional view.


* Ben Sidran, “The Concert for Garcia Lorca” (GoJazz). Pianist-author Sidran can always be counted on to blend fine playing with imaginative conceptual ideas. This unusual outing was recorded live in June 1998 at the Granada home of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. The musical-poetic program combines jazz pieces with spoken readings of Garcia Lorca’s essays--superb evidence of the capacity of jazz to interact with other, seemingly disparate, creative forms of expression. The CD is beautifully packaged in hardcover-book style.

* McCoy Tyner, “Jazz Roots” (Telarc Jazz). Tyner’s versatility seems to have no limits, from Coltrane-esque avant-garde to pop balladry, all delivered in the framework of his own instantly recognizable style. In this engaging new recording he performs in what may be his most appealing setting, as a piano soloist, brilliantly strolling through a program ranging from “A Night in Tunisia” and “Pannonica” to “Summertime” and “Misty,” dedicating many of the pieces to jazz icons such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Bill Evans.

* Various artists, “Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America’s Music” (Verve/Columbia). A five-CD boxed set that is essentially the soundtrack for Burns’ massive, 19-plus-hour jazz documentary, scheduled to air on PBS in the coming weeks. Despite its relative lack of coverage of post-'60s jazz, the collection is comprehensive and far-reaching in its coverage of the music’s first half century, and can serve as a basic, foundational entry for anyone’s collection of jazz recordings.