The ‘J-Word’: In a year of controversy, the best Jazz albums tested the parameters of the term

Nicholas Payton playing. (Infrogmation.)
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"I fucking love Charlie Sheen," the trumpeter Nicholas Payton tweeted in March. This turned out to be awkward because by the end of the year, he was fending off charges that he was the Charlie Sheen of jazz.

It started it in November when he wrote on his blog that jazz had lost its connection with popular culture and that musicians foolish enough to identity themselves as jazz artists doomed themselves to poverty and artistic irrelevance. "There is nothing romantic about poor, scuffling Jazz musicians," he wrote in a long, poetic diatribe that was shared by more than 10,000 people on Facebook since he posted it Thanksgiving weekend. "Fuck that idea. It's not cool. Jazz is a lie."

Some jazz musicians protested vehemently. Payton, who is African-American, had positioned the Jazz pigeonhole as one forced upon his elders by circumstances but one that has worked against the black musician since 1959.

He has since assailed his white critics as "haters" and some of his black ones as race traitors.

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The drama was only heightened by the fact that he had recently released an R & B-themed album entitled Bitches, which Concord Records refused to distribute because of the vulgarism in its title.

The jazz world was transfixed. It's not every day that one sees an artist like Payton, who plays brilliantly and made many fine records, publicly engage in what would appear to be an act of self-immolation.

But his frustrations resonated with many musicians. They applauded his assertion that jazz was a construct that had been imposed on them by the music industry. But what would they replace it with? And would this really give them more power with club owners and label executives?

This was a debate about the politics of jazz, but most importantly, it seemed to take shape most succinctly in message-boards among the musicians themselves. An even more interesting iteration of the J-Word debate was taking shape, meantime, on the bandstands of New York. On some of the year's ten best jazz albums, musicians like the saxophonist David Binney, drummer-composer John Hollenbeck and pianist Kris Davis are shedding some of the fundamental elements of jazz such as swing and the blues and introducing shapes and sounds from pop and classical music. Many have no explicit agenda—they're just making their music. Some do: They're proselytizers who think it's time Jazz step back into the rhythm of the mainline of the culture.

Take Hollenbeck (with Orchestre National de Jazz, Shut Up and Dance: Music by John Hollenbeck, on Bee Jazz). He doesn't like to affix labels to his music, and no wonder. He performs with some of the best jazz musicians in New York. He also belongs to an ensemble led by shamanistic downtown singer Meredith Monk, a leader of the new music revolution of the sixties and seventies with Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Shut Up and Dance is his latest effort to fuse these two sides of what some might mistake for a schizophrenic musical personality. It is a roaring success. Like the Philip Glass ensemble, the French Orchestra National de Jazz is heavy on woodwinds and keyboards. "Melissa Dance" climaxes with a shimmering cloud of revolving motifs, not unlike the opening movement of Glass' seminal "Music in Twelve Parts." But make no mistake: this is a jazz album. Orchestra members contribute strong solos, including trumpeter Gullaume Poncelet who is featured on the Grammy-nominated "Falling Men," dedicated to failed Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

And it was a busy year for Hollenbeck, who released a remarkable album (with The Claudia Quintet, What Is the Beautiful on Cuneiform). The album is an examination of the work of late proto-beat poet Kenneth Patchen. Jazz-poetry records lend themselves to parody: Think of Hollywood's smug portrayals in the late '50s of verse-slinging beatniks in boater shirts and berets backed up by jazz combos in smoky Greenwich Village clubs. What is the Beautiful is a send-up of that send-up. The album begins predictably with vocalist Kurt Elling reciting Patchen's "23 Street Runs Into Heaven" accompanied by Drew Gress on acoustic bass. It isn't long before Hollenbeck steers "What is the Beautiful" into less familiar territory, drawing on all his influences to produce a score that accentuates and reveals hidden meanings in Patchen's words, particularly on the apocalyptic title track.

If Payton's right that jazz "separated itself from American popular music," you wouldn't know it from listening to David Binney. The alto saxophonist with deep roots in the jazz tradition is also a fan of smart, modern-day indie rockers like Sufjan Stevens and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. He fuses these influences on Barefooted Town (on Criss Cross) to make music that is often as lyrical as a Death Cab anthem like "Transatlanticism," but also complex enough to provide a framework in which the leader and his sideman can exercise their post-Coltrane chops. Binney plays many fine solos on Barefooted Town. So does the indispensable tenor saxophonist Mark Turner who is appropriately skittish on the foreboding title track and extravagantly emotional on "A Night Every Day."

The titles of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's records are often puzzling, but they're hardly academic. The title of his latest album (The Mancy of Sound, on Pi Recordings) literally means the divination of music. And that's exactly what he is striving for on The Mancy of Sound. Many of the beats and melodies on Coleman's new album are based on the ancient codes and patterns of the West African Yorùbá language and culture (today spoken by 20 million people in West Africa and in immigrant communities around the world). The result is mystical grooves and otherworldly horn lines. Coleman likes everybody in the band to play simultaneously, which means someone is always soloing, the horn section is constantly providing a backdrop, and the rhythm section—two trap drummers and a Cuban percussionist—is constantly boiling. He established himself as a force in jazz years three decades ago. The Mancy of Sound is just another reminder of the fecundity of his musical approach.

If there were a prize this year for the best high-concept jazz album, it would go the pianist Dan Tepfer for The Goldberg Variations/Variations (on Sunnyside). The 29-year-old pianist plays Johann Sebastian Bach's famous keyboard work in its entirety, inserting his own improvisations between the master's variations. In the hands of a lesser musician, The Goldberg Variations/Variations might have been a stunt. But Tepfer is on his way to becoming an important artist. He plays Bach with extraordinary confidence. And his improvisations, while sometimes knotty and dissonant, flow seamlessly from the master's work. It will be fascinating to hear what he does next.

Also 29, the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has a fat sound, prodigious technique, and an aversion to cliché. You won't hear him playing tired Miles Davis blue licks or Freddie Hubbard's much-transcribed post-bop lines. On When the Heart Emerges, Glistening, his first album for Blue Note, Akinmusire employs his own vocabulary of trills, growls, half-valve smears and extreme movements in am ong the depths and the peaks of his horn. He manages to make his instrument sound like a conch shell in the beginning of "The Walls of Lechuguilla." But he isn't destined for avant-garde obscurity. He writes attractively melodic songs like "Henya," which is already being covered by younger players. And anyone who questions his ability to play inside should skip to his rendition of the standard, "What's New" on When the Heart Emerges. Akinmusire plays a sweet, breathy solo that is faithful to the changes and as inventive and mischievous as the rest of his albums.

The pianist Kris Davis opens her latest album, Aeriol Piano (on Clean Feed) with a delightfully off-center version of the standard "All The Things You Are." She begins at the extreme edges of the tune's tonality and slowly works her way inward. In the final moments when the song's familiar shape appears, she teases the listener with a fairly straight-forward version of the melody only to dash anyone's expectations that this will be a traditional jazz album with a dissonant flourish. The rest of Aeriol Piano is just as smart. "Saturn Return" is a prepared piano tune that evokes John Cage. "A Different Kind of Sleep" is full of lengthy silences like the music of Morton Feldman. And "Good Citizen" is a nod to the marginalized avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor who seems be coming back in style. Everything Davis plays sounds fresh and bodes well for the future of jazz, however it's defined.

Gerald Clayton fell in love at an early age with the music of pianist Oscar Peterson. His music has some of the late virtuoso's flash. But 27-year-old Clayton isn't as slavish to the tradition as he might initially sound. Bond: The Paris Sessions (on Emarcy) is very much a postmodern piano-trio record. Clayton is obsessed with detail, whether it's the silence at the end of a phrase or the perfect placement of the bell-like tone in the upper register. His version of "All The Things You Are" is slightly menacing. He moves "Nobody Else But Me" through a variety of key changes with little effort and considerable wit. Then there is "Hank," a tribute to the late pianist Hank Jones, who passed away last year. It is a bluesy farewell that shows that Clayton knows the difference between the heartfelt and the ironic.

The 31-year-old drummer Tyshawn Sorey is a member of Steve Coleman's band and he plays with Kris Davis in an excellent trio called Paradoxical Frog. So perhaps it's not surprising that his last few records have been highly conceptual. What else would you expect from a guy who lists Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Anthony Braxton as some of his influences? The beauty of Obilque I (on Pi Recording) is that you get to hear Sorey play a lot more drums for a change. This is not a record to introduce a new listener to jazz with. Sorey writes dark songs with gnarly lines and difficult rhythms. But if you listen to them repeatedly, the inner structures become apparent. It takes truly creative musicians to navigate such fare. The saxophonist Loren Stillman and the English pianist John Escreet move effortlessly between the dissonant and the consonant. And the leader has the uncanny ability to make it all sound logical—except he would rather it didn't.

Keith Jarrett's solo concerts are entirely improvised, which means that he plays whatever's flowing through him. Rio (on ECM) is the latest documentation of one of these singular events. It is the best so far. There are times on Rio when the 66-year-old Jarrett plays so atonally it sounds as it he is communing with Arnold Schoenberg's spirit. He also channels Maurice Ravel's Spanish-tinged Romanticism. There is also some gospel-rock, boogie-woogie and a spontaneously composed ballad that would have made George Gershwin envious. Yet Rio isn't pastiche. In the hands of this extraordinary improviser, these seemingly disparate styles each seem necessary for Jarrett to remain true to his performances. For Jarrett, jazz isn't a form, but an act.