6 New Jazz CDs Better Than “Highway Rider”

Is this guy just so 2002?

The media hype machine might not have noticed, but Brad Mehldau is no longer on the cutting edge of new jazz releases. Since the release of Highway Rider in March, I have had the pleasure of hearing at least six new jazz CD releases that may not have the same media profile, but convey a whole lot more inspired music. They are Reclamation by Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, It’s About That Time by the Hot Club of Detroit, Bloom by Ben Monder and Bill McHenry, A Vacant Lot by The Inhabitants, Backatown by Trombone Shorty and Royal Toast by the Claudia Quintet.

Last fall, I participated in a conversation at NPR’s A Blog Supreme, where seven young jazz writers listed some of their favorite releases from the past decade. Brad Mehldau was a consensus pick among my fellow jazz youngsters, and so when his new CD Highway Rider came out in March, it was a big event across the Jazz Internet. Some examples of Mehldau’s praise can be found at Nextbop and Pop & Hiss, the LA Times music blog. Jacob Teichroew from jazz.about.com, on the other hand, wasn’t too impressed.

I wasn’t wowed by what I heard, either, so I chose not to weigh in despite its status as one of the most-hyped jazz releases that will probably occur this year. But since then, I’ve heard a number of great new jazz CDs, and these six are my favorites. I guess this is somewhat of a follow up to Phil Freeman’s album review odyssey over at Burning Ambulance, where he reviewed 31 albums in 31 days. This project is a bit less ambitious: I’ll be highlighting six releases over the next six days, starting tomorrow. In the meantime, check them out!

Reclamation by Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio

It’s About That Time by the Hot Club of Detroit

Bloom by Ben Monder and Bill McHenry

A Vacant Lot by The Inhabitants

Backatown by Trombone Shorty

Royal Toast by the Claudia Quintet

You’ll get one review a day for the rest of the week, starting with Reclamation tomorrow. Also keep your eye out for Rosetta Trio’s studio session on The Checkout this Tuesday (June 1), and their hit at the Jazz Gallery on Thursday (June 3).

UPDATE: Matt Merewitz had the bright idea of chiming in with his own suggestions for new releases that are better than Highway Rider in the comments section. Please augment his list if you can, as I’m always looking for new stuff to check out.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
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7 Responses to 6 New Jazz CDs Better Than “Highway Rider”

  1. I look forward to your reviews. I agree on Stephan Crump’s CD.

    I would like to add a few non-client releases that I’ve been loving:

    John Hebert Trio – Spiritual Lover (Clean Feed)

    Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth – Deluxe (Clean Feed)

    Alan Ferber Music For Nonet & Strings – Chamber Songs (Sunnyside)

    John Ellis & Double Wide – Puppet Magic (Hyena)

    that’s what I can think of off the top of my head.

    • arodjazz says:

      Thanks for the recommendations — off that list, I’ve only heard Ferber’s Chamber Songs, which was solid but a little too third-streamy for my tastes, although he’s one of my favorite trombonists.

      I’ll have to grab Spiritual Lover, I heard Hebert at the Jazz Gallery a couple of weeks ago and he really blew me away.

  2. pdf says:

    I second Merewitz’s recommendation of the Chris Lightcap disc. I thought about writing it up for the 31 reviews in 31 days project, but vetoed it because I felt Lightcap was too high profile and wanted to save space for players fewer people had heard of. And I agree with you about Mehldau and Highway Rider. I wrote it up for Jazziz, not favorably.

  3. Small tangent: someone told me 2-3 years ago that Mehldau sells more copies in France alone (population: 65 million) than in the US (p.: 309 million) – I don’t know if that’s a crommon trend fo jazz records in general.

    My point is, if that’s true, to what extent whatever happens in the US with jazz *records* of *major* artists is representative of their appeal or artistic value or importance (whatever you want to call it).


  4. Ryan Maloney says:

    I too am looking forward to learning more about the artists you are planning on reviewing, however, your title of “6 New Jazz CDs Better Than ‘Highway Rider'” presents a bit of confusion for me when you do not state your issues with the actual music on the album.

    You say “I wasn’t wowed by what I heard, either, so I chose not to weigh in despite its status as one of the most-hyped jazz releases that will probably occur this year.” So what is it about the Mehldau album that you don’t like? Do you like his previous albums? In an era where major labels don’t support jazz artists and the small to mid-level labels like Nonesuch are doing everything they can to promote their artists, where do you see the “hype” coming from and is there $ behind the hype or is it generated by print materials and web chatter?

    Mehldau is an artist that has built a strong following and he has had a successful recording and performing career, so for the followers of him as an artist the hype may be valid. So Alex, I would like to hear your specific thoughts on “Highway Rider” so when I read your comments on the other recordings this week, I have a better perspective of where you are couching your criticism and superiority claim.

    I enjoy your writing and look forward to your response.

    • arodjazz says:

      Ryan, your response is multifaceted but you are right to call me out in the places where I cut a few corners to put this together. Allow me to attempt to clarify:

      I first heard “Highway Rider” about two weeks after it was released. I remember feeling a sense of heightened expectation due to the fact that it was the only 2010 jazz release that had much publicity behind it, and was being discussed ad nauseum by most of the jazz writers I follow online (so to answer one of your questions, I think that the buzz online was real but it was due almost entirely to Mehldau’s reputation, which had already been built by his label.) Given the buzz, my experience listening to the record was quite a letdown. Timbrally, its use of orchestral instruments (especially french horn and bassoon) struck me as pretentious. Compositionally, the vibe always felt self-important and over-inflated. Improvisationally, it lacked the adventuresome quality of some of his earlier albums. Overall, my impression was that this mega-budget musical epic strayed from the intimacy, honesty and spontaneous creativity that I would expect from a jazz musician of Mehldau’s caliber. Maybe that’s just not what he was going for here, which would explain its lack of resonance with me personally. But I was definitely expecting more.

      Still, it’s a perfectly OK piece of music … just not especially gripping. Anyone is free to disagree with me, but for this exercise it is the perfect “bar” for perfectly OK jazz in 2010; these six records have cleared it in one way or another. In particular, they all give me a sense of a powerful musical personality behind them. These musicians out there who are achieving this deserve a shout-out, in my humble opinion.

      The word “better” is hugely problematic, and I’m tossing out there anyway simply because I couldn’t come up with anything else for my title (and, I’ll be honest, people love to argue about what is “better”; it’s a good way to start a conversation, if only for the nuance to arrive partway through.) Obviously, these aesthetic judgments are hugely subjective, and there’s probably a lot about Highway Rider that’s “better” than some of these other releases. It just works really well as a frame to mention both the disappointing (to me) result of Highway Rider alongside six other things I’ve heard recently that have really made my ears perk up.

  5. Nonesuch is owned and operated by a major label. They have major label money. They are owned by Warner Brothers.

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