The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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A gathering of voices

The year in jazz

by Jon Garelick

1. Local uprisings. The margins of the Boston jazz scene have been filling in -- fans and musicians doing it for themselves. First and foremost is the Boston Creative Music Alliance (BCMA), which has revitalized itself after moving from the ICA to the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center in Kendall Square. Most recently, it's given us Marty Ehrlich's Dark Woods Ensemble, Equal Interest (with Myra Melford, Leroy Jenkins, and Joseph Jarman), the Dave Douglas Sextet, and local luminaries the Dave Bryant Quintet, Kobold, Charlie Kohlhase, and the Either/Orchestra. It also produced the two-night First Annual Boston Asian-American Creative Music Festival at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center with bassist/composer Jeff Song. On a separate front, we got the avant-flavored Autumn Uprising festival at the CMAC in October. And other independent, nonprofit venues keep popping up, like the Jazz in the Sanctuary Series (which produced a solo performance by Paul Bley in September) at the Church of Our Savior in Brookline. The grass roots have never been greener.

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Alfredo Rodriguez 2. Marty Ehrlich. Speaking of Ehrlich . . . this flutist, multi-reedman, composer, and bandleader worked in a variety of contexts, making significant statements in all of them. He commemorated his late friend and colleague, Julius Hemphill, as the musical director of the Julius Hemphill Sextet album At Dr. King's Table (New World). He shared an album of duets, The Open Air Meeting (New World), with pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams that was by turns lyrical, knotty, meditative, and always swinging. During the year he performed at both Brandeis and the New England Conservatory. In addition to their appearance in the BMCA series, Ehrlich's clarinet-and-strings Dark Woods Ensemble also gave us the double-CD Live Wood (Music & Arts).

3. Afro-Cuban. Rootsy flavors from the island continued to revitalize jazz. Pianist Alfredo Rodriguez -- who was featured last year in his work with Cubanismo -- released one of the year's most consistently satisfying CDs, Cuba Linda (Hannibal). And the year ended with a trio of stunning ensemble sets from Nonesuch's World Circuit imprint that blended traditional Cuban hybrids of pop, folk, and jazz: A Toda Cuba Le Gusta by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Buena Vista Social Club (with guitarist Ry Cooder), and Introducing . . . Rubén González, the brilliant pianist featured on all three CDs.

Dominique Eade 4. Dominique Eade, When the Wind Was Cool: The Songs of Chris Connor & June Christy (RCA). Eade has long been a respected Boston vocalist and teacher, and it's no backhanded compliment to say that on her major-label debut she does nothing wrong. Hasn't tact always been a major asset for a jazz vocalist? She doesn't oversing or scat tunes to death. Her timing and her taste are impeccable, as are her repertoire and her arrangements. Her voice gives off a pearly glow, and she plays the '50s jazz-pop tunes here straight, avoiding nostalgia in favor of a subtle contemporary spin.

5. Joe Morris. The 42-year-old Boston guitarist this year released one impressive recording after another. The crop includes Invisible Weave (No More), a duet session with bassist William Parker; Thesis (hatHut) with the pianist Matthew Shipp; a trio date, Antennae (Aum Fidelity); and You Be Me (Soul Note), featuring a quartet with the violinist Mat Maneri. Each project has its own distinctive character. On You Be Me, especially, Morris's detailed abstractions become part of a rich four-way conversation.

6. Steve Lacy. The 63-year-old expatriate soprano-saxophonist's more-or-less semi-annual visits to Boston have become major events. In December, his trio (bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch) gave an entrancing performance at the Regattabar, reprising some of their work from Bye-ya (Free Lance/Harmonia Mundi). As on record, group cohesion and individual virtuosity were a premium, and Lacy reinforced his reputation as one of jazz's singular players and composers.

Wynston Marsalis 7. Wynton Marsalis, Blood on the Fields (Columbia). In February, Marsalis performed his Blood on the Fields at Symphony Hall as part of the BankBoston Celebrity Series. In April, the epic oratorio about slavery in America won the Pulitzer Prize, the first ever for a jazz composition. The recording only confirms the piece's emotional and musical breadth.

8. Grismore/Scea Group, Of What (Accurate). A guitarist (Steve Grismore) and a sax/flute man (Paul Scea), living in different cities (Iowa City and Morgantown, West Virginia, respectively) somehow got together with some Boston-connected ace players (trumpeter Tim Hagans, bassist John Turner, and drummer Matt Wilson) and turned in this little gem of an album. It surprises at every turn: the flute has muscle and articulation, the guitar makes rude electric noises of Grismore's own devising, the ensemble is tight, and the tunes all have a witty, riff-based buoyancy.

9. Dave Douglas. The 34-year-old trumpeter wowed Boston audiences early in the year with his string quintet (trumpet, bass, violin, cello, drums) at the Regattabar, and then again in December at the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center with his boppish sextet. The latter outfit has focused on Booker Little (last year's In Our Lifetime, on New World) and Wayne Shorter (this year's Stargazer, on Arabesque). But the Balkans, European folk melodies, and Robert Schumann also regularly find their way into Douglas's jazz. File this trumpet stylist, composer, and bandleader under Research & Development.

10. RIP: Tony Williams, 51, brought up in Boston where he was trained by the late Alan Dawson, was the most important drummer of the modern era after Elvin Jones, and a key collaborator with Miles Davis. Stéphane Grappelli, 89, led the first important jazz group outside the United States with the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. Grappelli had a signature violin style -- fleet, bracing, and lyrical -- and was one of the great improvisers on any instrument. Doc Cheatham, 92, was at one time a young friend and disciple of Louis Armstrong. Until the end of his life, he played with a warm, singing tone and, not coincidentally, sang with conversational charm. His last CD to be released before his death was Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton (Verve).

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