Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Best Jazz of 2005: #1

Kenny Wheeler
What Now?

Well, here we are. And although I'd like to say that I agonized over this choice, I'll tell you the truth: I knew from the first moment I heard this record, I'd still be listening to it in December.

We often compare great albums to an artist's previous work; and taking that perspective, there are a number of ways to view this album. You can look at it as an expansion of Wheeler's last album on this label, a duet with John Taylor. You can look at it as a reduction of Wheeler's quintet records featuring some of these same musicians. But listening to the compositions on What Now and the improvisations they inspire, I think the most insightful comparison is as a sequel to 1998's memorable Angel Song.

That album featured Wheeler with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, and Dave Holland. It topped most Top Ten lists that year, and it remains one of the best sets of music recorded during the '90s. It was a confluence of unforgettable chemistry: four great musicians who synced flawlessly, and a program of original tunes that struck a perfect balance between script and improvisation. And by removing the drummer's chair from the band, Wheeler allowed time and texture to flow more naturally from the group than when guided by a single hand. Angel Song is a marvelous album that every jazz fan should own — and to my mind, this is Part Two.

It's worth adding: The engineers, James Farber and Goffredo Gibellini, captured an intimate acoustic; you can hear the buzz of Holland's strings and the snap of Potter's pads. I definitely recommend listening to this record with a good pair of headphones; this is one of those albums that puts you in the room.

I love everything I've listed in the Top Ten, but this unquestionably belongs at #1. This is jazz at its best, with every ingredient to which we aspire in every performance. The conversation between soloists is intelligent and articulate at every turn; and they never coast, not even for a second. There were plenty of good records this year; but this was a cut above, and it doesn't have a single weakness. It's uncommon for any artist to produce a work that strong, and now Wheeler has recorded two. Buy them both, today.

What Now: Iowa City; One Two Three; March Mist; The Lover Mourns; The Sweet Yakity Waltz; What Now; For Tracy; Verona.
Personnel: Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Taylor, piano; Dave Holland, bass.


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