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Best of Jazz 2001 

Looking at last year's favorites

In the jazz world, 2001 began amid the flurry and excitement of Ken Burns' Jazz series on PBS. The series increased awareness of the genre, and spurned a score of "Ken Burns Jazz" compilations by many of jazz's biggest names (Ellington, Armstrong, etc.). Jazz is healthy and the music's thriving, even if jazz sales are still a tiny slice of the CD market. What follows is a list of notable new works and reissues from 2001.

To begin in the past: Two excellent box sets from jazz legends wrapped up the year, and bear special mention. Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia: 1933-1944 (Columbia/Legacy) captures the best material from jazz's greatest singer. Despite her limited range, Holiday nonetheless defined jazz singing through her intense, emotional delivery, pulling feelings from the depths of her troubled life. This massive 10-CD set captures her at her peak, before substance abuse took its toll. It includes sessions with her orchestra, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, plus dozens of tunes with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Holiday's instrumental foil and soulmate. This set finally rectifies Columbia's previous Holiday CDs, which were rushed to disc in the format's early days and suffered from dreadful remastering. This is essential American music, and hopefully Columbia will spin off a smaller "best of" package for those who can't splurge for this archival gem.

Columbia also delivered the latest installment in their Miles Davis series with the important The Complete In A Silent Way Sessions box. Recorded between September 1968 and February 1969, this material documents Davis' shift to fusion, which would manifest itself in Bitches Brew later in 1969. Marked by open arrangements, an exciting sense of experimentation, and some elegant, understated playing from Davis' stellar band, this 3-CD set brings this often overlooked facet of the trumpeter's career into sharper focus.

As for newer material released this year, these are especially noteworthy:

Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian: Amaryllis (ECM). Crispell's trio's application of a free-form aesthetic to a slow, gently developed series of improvisational pieces is simultaneously inspired and inspirational.

Dave Douglas: Witness (BMG Bluebird). Inspired by pre-Sept. 11 international politics, this ensemble work is intense and challenging. Trumpeter Douglas continues to develop as one of the most talented and original musicians in jazz.

Bill Frisell: Blues Dream and Bill Frisell with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones (both on Nonesuch). Ingenious and innovative, guitarist Frisell continues to expand on his original sense of phrasing, voicing and execution on these two discs. The first is richly textured septet recording, the latter a trio with percussion master Elvin Jones.

Charlie Haden: Nocturne (Verve) The bassist delivers a beautiful book of ballads that pays homage to Cuban and Mexican bolero form. Tasteful and elegant.

Tom Harrell: Paradise (BMG Bluebird). This ensemble record seamlessly blends a string trio with a jazz band on tunes that range from energetic to contemplative. Fine ensemble work and great solos by trumpeter Harrell make this third stream effort memorable.

Dave Holland Quintet: Not for Nothin' (ECM). Vibraphonist Steve Nelson's aggressive playing brings brightness to the band's rhythmic complexity, and saxophonist Chris Potter and trombonist Robin Eubanks add some hot horn work. One of the finest working bands in jazz.

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette: Inside Out (ECM). Jarrett's standards trio had a bad night last year, tossed the songbook out, and decided to hearken back to their early days. They played free jazz, without form or restriction, letting the music take them where it might. These group improvisations are like a brisk blast of energy: exciting, surprising and very reminiscent of Jarrett's exploratory solo concert work, enriched by the roll and thunder of Peacock and DeJohnette. Inside Out is a refreshing reminder of how intriguing and challenging free jazz is when played by masters.

Hugh Ragin Trumpet Ensemble: Fanfare & Fiesta (Justin Time). The spirit and influence of Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie pervades this disc, which features a trumpet quartet that romps all over the stylistic map.

A few reissues deserve mention. John Coltrane's Live Trane: The European Tours (Pablo) is a great fix for 'Trane fans, featuring four hours of previously unreleased live material from the classic quartet. Two Thelonious Monk live discs, Monk in Tokyo and Live at the Jazz Workshop (Columbia/Legacy), expand upon earlier LP editions and provide a great glimpse of the iconic pianist at work.

Although it came out last December and isn't officially a 2001 release, it's appropriate to wrap this up with mention of the five-CD Ken Burns Jazz: The Story of America's Music (Columbia) box. Sort of a "jazz's greatest hits," it provides a good overview of the genre up to 1970, and collects dozens of classic tunes in one place. On Disc Three alone, you get Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul," Ellington's "Cotton Tail," Charlie Parker's "Ko Ko," Holiday's "Fine and Mellow," Dizzy Gillespie's "Salt Peanuts," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine." *

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