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The OFN Top 10 : 2004


It would be a tremendous cliché to say that 2004 was a “good year for music”; any year in which this music continues to thrive is a good one in this publication’s book.  2004 did, however, have its share of standout releases, and trying to choose the best of the best was as daunting a task as ever.  So our humble writing staff has attempted to weigh in collectively on the top new releases of 2004—a list that’s certainly not beyond debate, but simply a reflection of where a small group of (somewhat!) like-minded listeners’ ears and passions overlap.

#10 #09 #08 #07 #06
#05 #04 #03 #02 #01

10) Günter/Halliwell/Wastell “+minus [first meeting]” (Trente Oiseaux)
In a year full of strong releases, +minus [first meeting] was one that particularly stood out. Here, the delicate interactions of Graham Halliwell’s alto sax feedback, Mark Wastell’s amplified textures, Nepalese bowls, and gongs, and Bernhard Günter’s electric cellotar coalesce over the subtly shaded structures of Günter’s pre-recorded electronic compositions. Throughout, they collectively traverse improvisations of hyper-magnified details, ultra-refined timbral range, and shimmering skeins of textural densities. Debates seemed to rage everywhere on the web (this site included) about the relative merits of eai. But for those willing to take time to listen, here was a release imbued with some of the freshest improvisation around. (Michael Rosenstein)

09) Sachiko M/Nakamura/Yoshihide “Good Morning Good Night” (Erstwhile)
This incredible document from three major figures in eai almost feels like the culmination of a certain phase, since the music is so refined, so intense that one wonders what roads remain to be traveled in this particular direction. A beguiling, bewitching two-disc epic, multiple close listens open up a musical world of microscopic proliferation whose singularity and depth is among the more rewarding things I’ve heard this year. (Jason Bivins)

08) Parker/Schlippenbach/Lytton “America 2003” (Psi)
Two gigs—each pruned down to hour-sized dimensions—epitomize an eponymous tour. These three elders have been at it for ages, but as with the most emblematic improv outings they reliably tap a reservoir of sui generis. Schlippenbach, sitting in as 11th hour proxy, jolts the music with a healthy infusion of jazz. It’s a stimulus that pushes Parker to even ply some Getzian chops. Skittering sticks over crackerjack kit, Lytton keeps the interplay keenly off-kilter from his corner. Trio outfits simply don’t get much more telepathic or transcendental. (Derek Taylor)

07) Rob Brown Quartet “The Big Picture” (Marge)
Alto saxophonist Rob Brown’s The Big Picture is one of the year’s brightest acoustic jazz efforts due to its musicians, the quality of the compositions, and the results harvested from the mix of those elements.  As for the players, Brown pairs up with trumpeter Roy Campbell out front, matched by the extraordinary rhythm team of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.  The quartet visits fiery, groove-based realms on tracks like “Dawning” and “Legroom”, but also wades into meditative arenas like “Wyoming Song” and “Blues Thicket”, with Brown’s inventiveness and resourcefulness shining through.  For sure, a good bet in any year. (Jay Collins)

06) Dennis González Inspiration Band “Nile River Suite” (Daagnim)
Lone improviser of the Lone Star State, Dallas-based Dennis González proved that he can easily hold his own in the fast company of the Big Apple on a pair of 2004 releases. Nile River Suite was likely closer to his heart since the compositions reference early hero Jimmy Lyons as well as his deep-seated musical individualism. Subtly mixing secular and sacred motifs, González’s tunes easily propel a cadre of the Naked City’s best—second trumpeter Roy Campbell, reedist Sabir Mateen, bassist Henry Grimes, and percussionist Michael Thompson—into his unique sound world. The CD is more proof that exciting improv takes place every day way beyond the confines of the big media centers. (Ken Waxman)

05) Frank Gratkowski Quartet “Facio” (Leo)
Are there any other unspoken superlatives that might not have been shared about reedist Frank Gratkowski’s spectacular quartet with trombonist Walter Wierbos, bassist Dieter Manderscheid, and drummer Gerry Hemingway?  Most likely not.  Facio, their third as a working collective, builds upon previous works and as such, considers the tension between composed and improvised realms as well as spontaneously improvised drills.  This nine-part suite prickles, glides, grooves, and delights, with Gratkowski’s quirky thematic threads providing blueprints for the group expeditions.  Braxtonian twists like “Part 1 [evocation]” and “Part 8 [outburst]”, hard swingers like “Part 5 [rush]”, ruminative ventures like “Part 6 [interference]”, and the playful dance of “Part 9 [celebration]”, result in a dazzling record from one of creative music’s most important current ensembles. (Jay Collins)

04) Atomic/School Days “Nuclear Assembly Hall” (Okka Disk)
It seems like every third record that dropped this year featured Ken Vandermark. Prolific to the point of excess (I counted 12 outings he led or appeared on in 2004), the truth is that none of those releases were bad; most were good, and a few were marvelous.  Nuclear Assembly Hall was one of the marvelous ones, as Vandermark and fellow Chicagoan Jeb Bishop joined forces with some Scandinavia’s finest musicians. This double disc packs a lot in: It swings, it grooves, it even breathes a little fire. The compositions provide fertile opportunities for all eight players, and the interplay among them is exceptional—sometimes rousing with big band dynamics, at other times exploratory and intense. You get two discs with two different, but complementary sounds. The first one is harmonically richer, the second one, at times, harder and freer. Ken Vandermark, restless soul that he appears to be, is a great bandleader. (Adam Hill)

03) Dennis González NY Quartet, “NY Midnight Suite” (Clean Feed)
Who knew that Dennis González’s August 2003 sojourn to New York City would plant the seed for not one, but two of 2004’s most highly acclaimed releases?  In fact, NY Midnight Suite and Nile River Suite were so well received, the only debate surrounding them was in attempting to decide which was the better of the two.  NY Midnight Suite gets the edge here, as the trumpeter and his modestly clairvoyant quartet of tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Mike Thompson hold the musical equivalent of a candlelight vigil in the streets and subways of the Big Apple.  (Scott Hreha)

02) Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls “Breeding Resistance” (Delmark)
After nearly ten years and three releases, Chicago drummer and bandleader Ted Sirota finally put out a record that was heard by more than a handful of listeners.  And what a record it is: Breeding Resistance effortlessly adds West African and Caribbean spice to a smart, spacious post-bop aesthetic, resulting in one of the year’s most truly enjoyable releases.  Sirota’s dedication to social justice—realized in the form of tributes to kindred spirits Ken Saro-Wiwa and Fred Hampton, among others—offers further substance, proving once again that the best protest music feeds the hips as well as the mind. (Scott Hreha)

01) Rivers/Rudolph/Eisenstadt “Vista” (Meta)
It’s not that Sam Rivers was 80 when he recorded Vista that makes it such an incredible feat—although that kind of longevity in this business must certainly account for something. What makes it so powerful is the combination of two stellar percussionists in tandem with Rivers’ highly rhythmic and trenchant lines. Vista is fundamentally about melodic drummers and rhythmic melodies, even as those two phrases seem trite post Max Roach and Cecil Taylor. It is a recording like Vista, however, that helps one re-hear the essence of this music, the power of complex rhythms and striking melody. Indispensable. (Matthew Sumera)

Honorable Mention
  • Tim Berne’s Big Satan “Souls Saved Hear” (Thirsty Ear)
  • Jewels and Binoculars “Floater” (Ramboy)
  • Paul Murphy “Shadows-Intersection-West” (Cadence Jazz)
  • Steve Swell “Suite for Players, Listeners and Other Dreamers” (CIMP)
  • Brötzmann/Ellis/Eneidi/Krall “Live at Spruce Street Forum” (Botticelli)
  • Maria Schneider Orchestra “Concert in the Garden” (Artist Share)
  • Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio “Expansion” (High Two)
  • Cecil Taylor & Italian Instabile Orchestra “The Owner of the River Bank” (Enja/Justin Time)