Year in Jazz: Playing for keeps

By JON GARELICK  |  December 22, 2008

Danilo Pérez
Backstage after the Wayne Shorter concert at Berklee in December, the doorkeeper warned one of her colleagues: "Everybody's a friend of Danilo's." That would be Danilo Pûrez, the indispensable pianist in Shorter's quartet, and Boston's foremost jazz citizen — a teacher at Berklee and New England Conservatory, an international star who makes Boston his home and boosts the local scene every chance he gets, and a hero in his native Panama, where he's created an annual music festival that's the centerpiece of his educational-outreach foundation. This year he released The Panama Suite (ArtistShare) as well as an album of compositions and arrangements by Claus Ogerman, Across the Crystal Sea (Decca). And, oh yeah, he played the Regattabar in his great trio with Ben Street and Adam Cruz.

Jenny Scheinman
Scheinman has been a utility player for years, the go-to violin gal for Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Vinicius Cantuária, and especially Bill Frisell. At the same time, she's been exploring various Latin and European-folk and klezmer-influenced solo CDs. But this fall she released two CDs on Koch, Jenny Scheinman and Crossing the Field — the first a roots-based vocal album, the second an instrumental disc that traveled from covers of Ellington's "Awful Sad" to her own dense compositions for strings. At the MFA in June, she proved a great singing frontwoman, with a no-bullshit vocal attack. Meanwhile, in April she was the lead string voice with Frisell's Quartet 858 at the Regattabar. An indie-jazz diva either way.

Esperanza Spalding
Spalding had been turning heads since she arrived at Berklee as a 17-year-old — singing in counterpoint to her flowing acoustic basslines and tearing into the instrument with scary virtuosity. Her Heads Up debut, Esperanza, leaned in a pop direction, emphasizing her singing and the lyrics rather than her distinctive scatting. But here was Milton Nascimento's rarely covered "Ponta de Areia," Baden Powell's "Samba em Preludio," and, yes, "Body and Soul" — only in a 5/4 arrangement and sung in Spanish. When Spalding was projected on the big screen at Newport as part of George Wein's All Stars, she brought the house down doing the bass/voice thing to the Johnny Mercer/Sonny Burke standard "Midnight Sun."

David Torn
Guitarist Torn's Prezens (ECM) came out last year, but he and the band from that album — Tim Berne's Hard Cell Trio, with alto-sax Berne, Fender-Rhodes keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Tom Rainey — didn't get to the Regattabar till March. This was a freely improvised, riveting performance of electric jazz, guided by the band's experience working together. There was plenty of electronic squall, but it was held together by Rainey and Taborn, the music's progression based not on chord patterns or tunes but on rhythmic and dynamic cues and each player's ears and instincts.

Saxophone Summit
This supergroup formed in 1997 to play a Coltrane tribute concert in Japan. There were a couple of albums, and then in 2007 original member Michael Brecker died. Ravi Coltrane joined David Liebman and Joe Lovano on the front line for Seraphic Light (Telarc) and for a show at the Regattabar in September. The project is still about the John Coltrane legacy, but it also has its own identity, with everyone contributing compositions and arrangements. At the Regattabar, they played a varied program with a variety of horns (Liebman on wood flute at one point), but it was the totality of their sound that was most compelling — pianist Phil Markowitz, pianist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart equal partners with the star soloists.

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