You always hear that jazz is in trouble and it always is. Twenty-ten was no different, and darn if there wasn't a flood of jazz albums that came out last year that rank up there with many of the best releases of any decade.
I have a feeling that 2011 will follow suit, with jazz's golden child Esperanza Spalding already slated to cross over as a pop star and pianist Brad Mehldau continuing to win a new audience that grew up on indie rock rather than acoustic bop.
The following 10 releases are just a sampling of what is in store for the year. I have included two pop/rock albums that should be interesting, one of which is by Paul Simon, who has worked regularly with the finest jazz musicians in the world since his days with Art Garfunkel (why do you think the acoustic bass on "The 59th Street Bridge Song [Feelin' Groovy]" is so, well, plain groovy?).
We are even planning to have a pre-release listening party for a couple of these, so check back in with us from time to time.
Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (April 12)
Paul Simon hasn't had the biggest successes with his last few releases Songs from the Capeman was tied to a musical that flopped on Broadway; the propulsive You're the One was shut out on radio and TV; and Surprise (a collaboration with Brian Eno) was probably too edgy for his fan base. But Dylan, Plant and Springsteen have all earned critical praise and big sales for their late-career comebacks, and this could be Simon's year. The previewed track, " Getting Ready for Christmas Day," sounds like classic Paul Simon (simultaneously sweet and cutting), yet is sonically post-modern and 21st century. He has also reunited with jazz/quality soft-rock producer Phil Ramone, whom he worked with back in the days of Still Crazy After All These Years. Also, Bob Dylan-style, Simon has gone from being uncool to being an often-cited influence on today's indie rock acts and singer-songwriters. Word on the album is strong.
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (TBD)
Esperanza Spalding has done the impossible for a modern jazz artist: she is pretty much alone in earning pop-league sales for acoustic jazz (it is a rare jazz musician indeed who gets profiled in People magazine). Spalding managed to rack up sales without radio support, partially by doing tons of TV appearances (her charisma pops off the screen), working with jazz elders like Joe Lovano, earning plenty of Grammy nominations, getting profiled by The New Yorker and playing for President Obama twice. She was even hand-selected by Prince to play at a tribute concert honoring His Purpleness. A bassist, composer and bandleader, Spalding is also a svelte soul singer, and she has nabbed quality producer Q-Tip to helm her first "mainstream" pop release set for 2011. An epic beauty, Spalding is even generating buzz for declining to go the Rihanna/Beyonce sexy route.
Charlie Haden, Sophisticated Ladies (April 26)
Charlie Haden is another jazz bassist who doesn't seem to pay any attention to boundaries. Haden was on the ground floor of free jazz with Ornette Coleman, earned a No. 1 jazz album by recording the country-folk of his youth, and helped take last year's collaboration with pianist Keith Jarrett to the Top 10 pop album charts across Western Europe (not bad considering it was recorded in one day at Jarrett's house). Now Haden returns to working with his superb Quartet West, which finally made him a crossover jazz star in the 1990s by misting bop with the shadowy feel of old detective movies. With Sophisticated Ladies, Haden returns to the film noir well with a bevy of femmes fatales at his side: Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Melody Gardot, Renee Fleming and more.
Kurt Elling, The Gate (February 8)
Kurt Elling is part of a new generation of jazz vocalists who are expanding the jazz repertoire. For this outing (produced by professional music fan Don Was of Was [Not Was] fame), Elling puts his own spin on numbers by rock and soul acts. The Beatles and Stevie Wonder are here, but they've long been part of the jazz lexicon. Elling also brings in numbers originated by Earth, Wind & Fire, Joe Jackson and proving he's got the stones of a marble station art-rock progenitors King Crimson. He goes back to the jazz well with "Blue in Green" before veering off again with a song called "Samurai Cowboy."
Brad Mehldau, Live in Marciac (February 8)
Pianist Brad Mehldau is another jazz artist who does not shy away from the rock songbook (a devoted Beatles fan, Mehldau also led the way in making Radiohead the most-covered modern rock band). This double-disc concert recording includes a number of Mehldau originals as well as a few choice jazz standards and covers of rock acts like Nick Drake, Nirvana and, yes, tunes by Radiohead and The Beatles. Mehldau's Highway Rider topped our Best Albums of 2010: Jazz list, so we're really looking forward to this.
Colin Vallon, Rruga (TBA)
While I've been a Brad Mehldau fan for well over a decade, until recently I had never even heard Swiss pianist Colin Vallon. So why am I excited to hear him? Vallon's trio is putting their debut out on ECM, the German jazz label that specializes in gauzy sonic beauty and distilled genius. If the music is anywhere near the sounds conjured by the cover photograph of a man cycling down a rainy street, this one should be a keeper.
Paolo Fresu, A Filetta: Corsican Voices (TBA)
Trumpeter Paolo Fresu is also making a name for himself on the ECM label, but I have been following his fine work on Blue Note for years now. His music often reminds me of his fellow Italian Enrico Rava in that they both mix a mainstream Miles/Chet/Brownie vibe with a decidedly European experimental streak. Of the two, Fresu is the warmer, more continental player, and this collaboration with a Corsican folk group sounds like it is going to conjure up the Mediterranean vacation that I cannot afford to have this year.
Keren Ann, 101 (April 4)
Once Blue Note Records hit it big (make that HUGE) with Norah Jones, they have made a partial transition over to quality singer-songwriters (Amos Lee) and indie pop acts (The Bird and the Bee). Keren Ann is a singer-songwriter who crossed over with indie fans; she also has a very global reach and a jazz-like love of collaboration. With this one, she dominated on the writing, performing, production, engineering and arranging fronts. That last one (writing the band, orchestral and choir charts on the album) makes her a natural gateway artist for jazz fans. Keren Ann has always had a Bride Wore Black retro style and icy reserve, and these traits should be heightened by the mystery and crime-scene tinge the album seems to have.