THE DARK TREE 2
The Dark Tree, 1 & 2
hatOLOGY : 1991
HT, piano; John Carter, clarinet; Cecil McBee, contrabass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.
WELCOME TO THE CONCLUSION OF THE SUMMATION OF NINETIES WEEK
(Part five [b] of five)
D:O’s ROUND-UP OF THE 1990s
Here’s our own round-up of favorite jazz albums and significant artists of the 1990s. We’ve also included a list of key musicians whose work deserves more recognition — from us as well as the wider world — and we invite your comments about them.
1 HORACE TAPSCOTT, THE DARK TREE, 1 & 2
We list this first because we’re surprised nobody mentioned it on any other list. For us, it’s Tapscott’s masterpiece. A towering work full of emotional drama, sensitive musical interplay, and sophisticated compositions. It’s ripe for rediscovery. Check out the long-but-gripping title track for some of Carter’s most fiery playing and a stellar example of Tapscott’s ability to mix solid vamps and winding pianistic excursions.
Tapscott’s refusal to travel early in his career and his commitment to grassroots L.A. causes kept his talents a longtime regional secret. The 90s saw him shuffle towards the spotlight, releasing some stellar solo outings accompanied by a series of wonderful and seemingly never-ending archival releases called The Tapscott Sessions. Although he’s passed away, Tapscott will cast a long shadow over jazz in the years to come.
2 MATTHEW SHIPP
Shipp exploded in the 90s, releasing a string of remarkable solo albums. We’ve got a special fondness for New Orbit, which, depending on how you date it, isn’t exactly a 90s album. But we could also single out his trio date Multiplication Table, string duet Gravitational Systems, string trio By the Law of Music, the in-and-out Pastoral Composure, not to mention DNA, Circular Temple, or his work with Roscoe Mitchell and David S. Ware. His most recent music has scattered in dozens of directions at once and become largely hit-or-miss. Making it too easy to forget the amazing body of work he amassed during the 90s, much of it still waiting to be properly digested.
3 JOHN ZORN
Naked City’s eponymous debut dropped like a hydrogen bomb on our impressionable little minds. The no-wave, style-hopping, surf thrash, spaghetti-western lounge music with babblecore vocals was…jazz? We loved it, from the blood-splattered Weegee cover photo to Yamasuka Eye’s choreographed screams. We also ate up Grand Guignol, Radio, and the band’s other outings, but nothing else quite replicated that initial shock.
We equally loved Zorn’s other major group of the decade, Masada. But their output was sprawling and hard to track, since their studio albums were pricey imports. We were properly amazed by the electrifying live gigs and sublime large ensemble records like The Circle Maker and Bar Kokbha. But there are big gaps in the Masada discography we have yet to fill. And then there is Zorn’s solo work, and we’d be remiss not to name-check the superlative Filmworks 1986-1990, ear-shattering Kristallnacht, and dizzying noir cabaret The Bribe.
4 DAVID S. WARE
Perhaps the best long-standing band of the decade, David Ware’s quartet blazed through a series of consistently excellent albums. Even voters couldn’t decide if their best effort was Flight Of I or Go See the World. We could also add Godspelized and Third Ear Recitation to that short list. Depending on the day, we’d give you a different fave album. But we have no trouble naming Susie Ibarra as the finest drummer to ever grace the group.
5 DAVE DOUGLAS
Another great run during the decade — albums with remarkable variety and consistency. We’ve always gravitated towards Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, in particular Constellations, a near-perfect album that probably would loom much larger if it had ever been released domestically.
6 ANTHONY BRAXTON
We were fortunate to see Braxton’s Great Quartet at the Knitting Factory in 1993, where they scrolled through sheaves of musical scores as if the pages were on fire, obliterating the line between the improv and composition. Braxton played with roiling passion, sweat rolling off his face, shaking back-and-forth so violently that his glasses flew into the third row. The gig even made a free jazz believer out of Chilly’s father. Still parsing those epic Willisau 1991 and Santa Cruz 1993 sets, but they’re molten reminders of that unforgettable night.
7 SONNY SHARROCK, ASK THE AGES
It’s hard to recapture the impact of hearing this record in 1991. It was real and unapologetic fire-breathing free jazz, uncompromised by hackneyed production, and on a major label! Sharrock’s guitar work brought something new to this union of titans — and as much as we love Black Woman, a quick comparison shows how his tone became more potent and nasty over the decades.
8 BILL DIXON
Two impressive series from the venerable trumpeter: the two Vade Mecum sessions as well as Papyrus 1 & 2 (the Papyri?), duets with Tony Oxley that also showed off Dixon’s chops at the keyboard.
9 JAZZ SATELITTES, VOLUME ONE – ELECTRIFICATION
This two-disc comp was a coup of creative curating. It codified the Kozmigroov sound and shone a light on many unjustly forgotten corners of jazz-fusion from the 70s. Listening was like discovering a new continent.
10 BUTCH MORRIS
That 10-CD Testament sure is imposing, but see our recent entry on Dust to Dust for the reasons why we prefer that studio album to the live conduction excursions of the box set. But we also love the underrated Berlin Skyscraper, which conjures woolly instrumental textures with admirable focus.
11 CHARLES GAYLE, TOUCHIN’ ON TRANE
A major dude in NYC during the decade, mostly for his scaldingly intense live shows, filled with sax blow-outs extraordinaire and surprisingly sensitive piano tantrums. The albums recaptured those moments but their one-dimensional fury wore out pretty quickly. Touchin’ on Trane digs deeper, tapping into a more nuanced and lasting spiritual vein.
12 MARC RIBOT Y LOS CUBANOS POSTIZOS
We’re not sure this is jazz, but fuck it. Even if it has more kinship with the wonderful Latin Playboys albums like Dose and the first self-titled disc, in its retro-futurist melding of junkyard Latin rhythms, rock slop, and second-hand nostalgia. We also love his solo guitar joint, Don’t Blame Me, which covers the great American songbook, from Jimmy McHugh and Jerome Kern to Albert Ayler.
13 PETER BROTZMANN
We haven’t been exhaustive in following Brotzmann’s output, but even given our limited purview it’s clear that The Chicago Octet/Tentet set from Okkadisc is some kind of major statement and Dried Rat Dog with Hamid Drake is not far behind.
14 HENRY THREADGILL
It took us ages to get past the soupy production of Too Much Sugar for a Dime to enjoy the wonderful grooves and high-wire perform of the Very Very Circus band. Carry the Day and Spirit of Nuff Nuff are also exceptionally fine. But where’s that Society Situation Dance Band album?
15 EVAN PARKER
His 50th Birthday Concert serves as both an impressive career summation and proof of Parker’s continuing vitality. So much so that it towers over his other albums from the period.
16 CECIL TAYLOR
Where Taylor OWNED the 80s and his shows in the 90s were as jaw-dropping as ever, his records from the decade didn’t always bowl us over. The Willisau Concert is one of his best solo albums ever — which is saying a lot — but it was recorded in 2000 and probably shouldn’t count for this survey. So that leaves Momentum Space with Dewey Redman and Elvin Jones, an initially underwhelming record that refuses to bash you over the head with its brilliance and instead slowly grows in esteem with each patient spin.
17 WILLIAM PARKER’S LITTLE HUEY ORCHESTRA
Sunrise in the Tone World and the perhaps-not-officially-90s Mayor of Punkville show off Parker the community builder, sound sculptor, swing shifter. The orchestra is some kind of big band: sloppy, too large for its own good, difficult to capture on record, but the discs this group dropped nevertheless offered listeners some of the most unalloyed pleasure of the decade. Swinging like an elephant’s trunk, the records felt so immediate, so drenched in the moment, they emitted all kinds of funkiness. Some might feel you had to have been there; so next time you will be.
18 MARILYN CRISPELL
Her 90s work is underrated, probably even by us. Her ensemble album Santuerio and sax duet Red rank high in our esteem. And her piano duet Overlapping Hands is fascinating. We’re not thrilled by the recent ECM ossification of her music. But while we complain that Nothing Ever Was, Anyway is too slick and airless, there’s something about that tribute to Annette Peacock that keeps us coming back.
19 DON PULLEN
Random Thoughts is a terrific record, marrying spastic tone clusters and swing so effortlessly that even Stanley Crouch couldn’t resist its pull, avant garde pedigree and all. Though probably not as good, we’re surprised nobody mentioned Pullen’s stirring African-Brazilian connection records from his last years.
20 ORNETTE COLEMAN
In the context of the movie, Ornette’s soundtrack to Naked Lunch is one of the all-time greats. Divorced from Cronenberg’s images, it’s still pretty excellent. It took us years to get with the global syncretic hip-hop inspired production of Tone Dialing, but now we dig it. Still trying to unlock those Sound Museum albums with Geri Allen. But we know better than to underestimate Ornette.
21 RANDY WESTON
Maybe it’s because Weston recycles tunes so often from album to album that folks overlook him. But he had a great decade, reuniting with arranger Melba Liston and sharpening the Marrakech-Brooklyn axis. Gems included Volcano Blues, Khepera, and Saga. And The Spirit of Our Ancestors as the pick of a fine litter.
SOME OTHER EXCELLENT ALBUMS:
Cassandra Wilson, Blue Light Til Dawn; Leroy Jenkins, Solo; Muhal Richard Abrams, Blu Blu Blu; Nils Petter Molaever, Khmer; Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, Steal Away; Andrew Hill, Dusk.
FILE UNDER: TO BE CONTINUED –
THE EURO SCENE
One of our readers recently called Destination: Out “Afro-centric.” We take that as a high compliment, even if we doubt we’ve earned it. So call it our bias for the site. As a result, we probably give the massive European scene short shrift and that’s especially true in this 90s round-up. Alexander Shlippenbach Trio’s Elf Bagatellen likely deserves a place on our short list. And perhaps predictably, the Derek Bailey we love from the period is his funk outing Mirakle with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. So others can speak more eloquently about worthwhile work by Barry Guy, Tomasz Stanko, and the rest.
MacArthur Genius grant recipient but sometimes we think his greatest contribution might be as an organizer and a gateway for new fans of free jazz. An entire generation of indie rock fans in the south and midwest can trace their love of free jazz directly to Vandermark and his various projects. His albums from the 90s sounded solid to us, but he seemed to really hit his stride during this decade, based on the Six for Rollins tribute, among others. But even so, we often suspect we’re still underestimating the guy.
We dig Shakill’s Warrior quite a bit, but somehow even that album seemed slightly underwhelming next to Murray’s titanic work from the 1980s. Maybe we’re stuck in the past. Or maybe we just missed his best albums from the decade. Suggestions?
The guy cut an impressive figure through the 90s, one of the first “young lions” to marry new traditionalist chops with an interest in the avant garde. Even Cecil was a fan. For many who liked their jazz more trad, he was kinda THE guy for the entire decade. But somehow we slid off his albums, admiring them but feeling that we were missing something. We’re due for a revisit. Which ones should we try first? And what’s happened to him recently?
Another guy whose work we admire but could never whole-heartedly embrace. Given his high profile in the 90s, we’re surprised to see only Banned in New York getting props from this poll. Folks admire his recent work more? Or don’t rate him so highly?
A huzzah for The Tao of Mad Phat, a seriously funky affair. But apparently we missed his other major 90s achievements as we kept buying the “wrong” Steve Coleman albums and prematurely writing him off.
We slept on prime late period Ra like Mayan Temples and Purple Night, and it makes us wonder if we’re missing anything else from El Saturn’s twilight years?
We remember Antennae looming large when it was released. He has an interesting technique, but sometimes comes off a bit arid for us hardcore Sharrock and Cosey fans. But our ears remains open.
Berne’s 80s work and some of his music from this decade are among our faves. But somehow we were on a different wavelength from him during the 90s and, from the voting, it seems many others were as well. Our problem or his?
Surprised that nobody name-checked the work of this formidable Japanese pianist and composer, particularly Something About Water, her duet album with Paul Bley, or her quartet firestorm Kitsune-Bi.
FILE UNDER: FOR FURTHER RESEARCH –
There’s a lot to be said for the marvelous music of this talented pianist, composer, and bandleader. But we’re not the ones with the expertise to say it.
There have been some exceptional follow-up posts elsewhere in response to, and as clarifications of, the lists below. These two at Pat Donaher’s visionsong are pretty great. Dan Melnick over at Soundslope has put up three very detailed and passionate posts regarding his selelctions — one, two, three. And DJ Durutti took his list in some interesting directions. Carl Wilson raised the significant question of how a period’s great albums relate to a music’s overall vibrancy (or cultural capital), asking if there’s a relationship there at all. We had much simpler goals than making any kind of case for jazz’s continued validity/vibrancy, and we’re honestly too burnt out at this point to address this issue, but recognize its importance, and hope to pick up on it later on. Possibly much later on…
90 90 90 90 90
Finally, before we bid adieu to the decade that was, we would like to send a shout-out to those non-jazz albums that set our ears on fire and made our hearts flutter. Musically, the 1990s would not be the same for us without Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine; Wu Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers; the Mekons on any stage on any night; the Swinging Neckbreakers; the Pere Ubu box set; et cetera.