This review page is supported in part by the sponsor whose ad banner is displayed below

Vinyl Rules! (But CDs survive...)
Top Hits and Smokin' Hot Action
While I admit that most of my listening for pleasure is done these days on my trusty Kuzma table (and loaner EMT cart), in my role as a music reporter, CDs remain an indispensable part of my daily music environment. Nothing comes close to LP presentation but working day in/day out writing reviews for DownBeat, Yahoo, Modern Drummer and, the digital noise freely flows out of my computer's M-Audio monitors and hot damn!, they sound pretty good.

I get freebies galore to pitch to various publications and my taste runs from jazz to electronic to free jazz to a little hip-hop. So without further adieu, here follow a few of my favorite releases from the great and glorious year of 2008. It's been a doozy, right? Only music can clear away the political and financial turmoil and restore us to that desert island paradise of the mind. And the soul shall follow.

Oh, I forget to mention, I reviewed some stellar gear this year too, including the Thorens TD550, and my recently acquired ProAc D Twos, which I didn't review. Look for a Spiral Groove table review from moi in the New Year, and maybe some DeVore speakers. Rumor has it that John DeVore has something mid-sized in the works, but I know not what. ...

Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures: Dream Garden
Percussionist Adam Rudolph's 23rd (!!) release as a leader conjures images of both the past and near past. It references everything from the percolating bombast of early 70s Miles Davis to the exotic island perambulations of Martin Denny or Les Baxter circa 1962. Of course these are only reference points. Rudolph's concept, instrumentation and arrangements are bold and experimental in ways similar to those aforementioned artists but with a dark 21st Century edge that has more to do with Kip Hanrahan's American Clave label than the retro designs of Rhino's reissue department. Typically as a battery of percussion (hand drums, bells, oud, congas, shakers, drum set etc.) lays down a wave-like barrage of prickly projectiles, Rudolph's personality-filled front line of electric guitar, cornet, various reeds and electric bass storms the temple.

"Helix" runs the voodoo way down, with Graham Haynes' soaring cornet leading a percussion jumble that sounds as if it's barely one step ahead of a pack of wild boar. Steve Gorn's flute intertwines with Ned Rothenberg's humid clarinet in "Dream Garden" joined by chattering percussion to create a true deep forest/jungle dreamscape. Rudolph's frame drums and God knows what else surround greasy flutes in "The Sphinx", another mysterious time-warp tune which has its companion in the beatnik dirge "The Violet Hour". As a band, Moving Pictures inhabit a world like no other, combining dazzling musicianship seemingly borne of a journey through the Amazon Rainforest with senses finely tuned to the quintessential urban jungle (ordering info).

Bill Stewart: Incandescence
A thoughtful drummer who works a thought-provoking, extremely conversational style, Bill Stewart has recorded four albums as a leader, each one more forward-thinking than the last. But Stewart is clearly a drummer of great action as well, his intense drumming emitting a clear-as-a-bell, sharp-as-cut-glass logic expressed through stunning full-set phrases that charge full borne from his elegant time keeping. Working here with two of his favorite musical compatriots -- organist Larry Goldings and pianist Kevin Hays -- Stewart the composer comes to the fore. Where his earlier albums smacked of the bop terrain typically mapped by labels and musicians of the late 90s, Incandescence is an intensely personal introspective recording that seems inspired by Monk and Paul Bley.

Beyond that, it's pure Bill Stewart. The compositions have a mysterious quality which provides perfect counterpoint to the drummer's shimmering drum declarations. A simple, eerie piano line meanders through "Portals Opening" over which Stewart builds a solo of jagged rhythmic edges, delicate cymbal glances, abrupt snare rolls à la Tony Williams and calculated accents. Stewart often plays agitated full set rolls that fly over the bar line, adding a feeling of tumult and friction to his already unsettling compositions. And of course Stewart swings his butt off as in the gleefully upbeat "Opening Portals". Goldings and Hays perform the playful unison melody of "Tell A Televangelist" while Stewart drops mocking bombs below. Stewart further shape-shifts sounds in "Metallurgy" where gaseous, spewing, popping cymbal effects create a virtual iron-ore smelting furnace.

Cindy Blackman: Music For The New Millennium
Drummer/bandleader Cindy Blackman has for years balanced rock stardom with a prolific post bop-styled recording career. Widely known as the Afro-wearing tough-looking drummer with retro rocker Lenny Kravitz, Blackman is also perhaps the most dedicated disciple of the late, truly great Tony Williams. Where Music For The New Millennium (Blackman's 10th release) seems to channel the amorphous expansions of Miles Davis' Nefertiti and Filles de Kilimanjaro right down to its hovering Rhodes piano and ghostly Shorter-esque melodies, Blackman's drumming builds not only on Tony Williams' 60s innovations (with and without Miles) but his '70s solo albums Believe It and Million Dollar Legs.

Blackman's capacity to practically live in Williams' skin is a scary thing, the petite drummer blasting flam combinations, fulminating single-stroke rolls and agitated full-set rhythms over her willing quartet's contributions. Also like Williams in his prime, Blackman has no fear of overplaying, her band often waiting to get in the game until her commentary is complete. Williams received similar criticism for his drumming with Miles. He was the acknowledged spark that made that legendary quintet explode. But does 2008 equate to 1966? The opening salvos of "The Drums and Me" for example are modeled on Tony Williams' energy circa 1970, all flam slams, single-stroke fire and furious bass drum piston action. Blackman's sympathetic quartet perfectly captures the era's vibrations as well, spinning dark dense lines over her furious sticking (ordering info).

Eliane Elias: Bossa Nova Stories
ong recognized as a virtuoso pianist, Brazilian-born Eliane Elias once again tackles the vocal frontier on Bossa Nova Stories. Equally inspired by her own exceptional artistry and (apparently) the bean counters at Blue Note, the album is unevenly split between deeply felt, creatively arranged and brilliantly performed bossa nova standards and commercially driven, Diana Krall-designed pabulum. Saccharine renditions (complete with ubiquitous syrupy strings) of 'The Girl From Ipanema", "Too Marvelous for Words" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" are one step removed from the airport lounge. Elias doesn't sound like she even believes in this material.

But get her on her home turf and she sparkles and then some. Accompanied by a seamlessly empathetic group including the luminous Oscar Castro-Neves on guitar, Elias wows on a simmering 'Chega de Saudade", her vocals butterfly light, the arrangement glittering. "Desfinado" is light filled and percolating, with Paulo Braga's lithe drumming propelling Elias, Castro-Neves and strings to the skies in a perfect Rio afternoon. Toots Thielemans joins for the lazily lovely "Estate (Summer)", his woozily aromatic harmonica suspending the tempo like a slowly dying sunset. Funky piano rhythms upend "Day In, Day Out" and a sweet cover of Stevie Wonder's "Superwoman" shows Elias' voice at its elastic best. Vocally and spiritually and throughout much of Bossa Nova Stories, Eliane Elias expresses a magic shared by Brazilian masters from Jobim to Jorge Ben, a tonal/rhythmic sense that is based in sorrow yet which resounds in joy (ordering info).

Frank Zappa: Zappa Wazoo
Recorded live in 1972, this previously unreleased two-CD recording features Jim Gordon playing 'electric drums' in one of Zappa's large ensembles with six brass and woodwinds each. This foreshadowed the fabulous Ensemble Modern which would record his Yellow Shark symphonic work 21 years later. This is a landmark recording, demonstrating what can be achieved with extremely proficient musicians and a genius at the helm. This is also a high watermark recording for Gordon, the major studio drummer of the era, performing Zappa's complex rhythms and seriously demanding dynamic and stylistic range with the skill of a classical percussionist and the improvisational fire of a Roy Haynes. Essential!

Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple [Atlantic]
Though Dangermouse cancelled a Remix interview hours before its appointed time, the prima donna refusing to discuss gear or production (though photos of the duo's studio is plastered across their website), we're not bitter. The Odd Couple is truly brilliant. With no obvious follow-up hit to "Crazy", the album instead runs amok with heavily delayed, weird backwards samples ("Would Be Killer"), a panoply of keyboard textures (Magnus Chord Organ, ARP Axxe, Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos), demented wall-of-sound vocals ("Open Book") and a generally experimental esthetic. Like the cast of '60s musical Hair lending their go-go boots and psychedelic vocal choruses to themes of isolation, rejection and bitterness, The Odd Couple is deliciously unhappy listening.

Harmony vocals straight off a Mamas and Papas record fill "Surprise" along with strummed acoustic guitars, claves and reverb-heavy guitar slashes. Like much of the album, "No Time Soon" uses what sounds like live instruments meshed with drum programming that bumps and ticks like insane fireflies. Beauty abounds as well as in the Debussy-modeled "She Knows", its nauseous keyboards, crippled beat and ghostly lyrics killing us softly.

Jackson Conti: Sujinho [Mochilla]
Jackson Conti is the collaboration of Madlib and Azymuth's drummer Ivan Conti. Energized by Conti's rolling samba/bossa rhythms, Madlib's wizardry takes flight but this is anything but freeform. Sujinho is a tribute to the composers who've made the Brazilian scene a source of endless inspiration. The pair covers George Duke's "Brazilian Sugar" for example, with Conti's intricate drumming (multi-tracked and layered) propelling Madlib's sampled vibraphone, strings and cooing synths. Covers include Edu Lobo's "Casa Forte", Airto Moreira's "Xibaba' and Dom Um Ramao's "Waiting on the Corner".

Jeff Babko: Mondo Trio [Abstract Logix]
Drawing on two majordomo documents of the fusion era, The New Tony Williams Lifetime's Believe It and the Abercrombie/Hammer/DeJohnette ECM masterpiece Timeless, LA keyboardist Jeff Babko offers Mondo Trio as his maniacal entry into the modern jazz rock shredding sweepstakes. An organ/saxophone/drums trio (with reed man Jeff Coffin and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta), these Mondo Maniacs have produced one of the most combustible warped concoctions of 2007. The template typically involves a brief churning intro as informed by ELP's Tarkus as Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame followed by as much improvisational sweat, fire and blood as humanly possible.

Not that this is simply fusion by the numbers. These guys are as interested in expressing a sense of pop song structure as scalding 32nd notes. Allusions to Bitches Brew also abound as in the rubato haze of "El Nino" where Colaiuta flails his toms while framing beautiful cymbal filigrees over Babko and Coffin's loop like melodic threads. In fact, much of Mondo Trio works as a vehicle for Colaiuta, today's 21st Century Schizoid drummer, to go insane. After finding his impetus in Steve Gadd and Tony Williams, Colaiuta has advanced his art to near mythic proportions among drummers and other interested musicians. Though he is not a pure jazz musician, his playing is an often astounding example of inspired improvisation and technical achievement. From prog rock ("Akimbo") to second-line funk ("Five Before Happy Time") to supercharged songos ("Vote 4 Morals"), Colaiuta and crew send 1000 punters back to the woodshed.

Russell Gunn: Love Stories [High Note]
What's this? Love Stories? A skilled trumpeter/flugelhornist more likely to drop a fat-bottomed hip-hop beat under his neo-bop compositions than swing the splang-a-lang, Russell Gunn is expanding jazz's notions of rhythm and melodic rhyme. When this 27-year old veteran who has released multiple recordings (including 2000's Grammy nominated Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1) lowers his pinky into a love-themed outing, you can bet it won't be of the roses and chocolates variety. Including "Bitch, You Don't Love Me", "The Stalker Song" and "I'm in Love with A Stripper", Love Stories courses the mental side of love, its deftly composed, richly expressed melancholia infused with deep solos from Gunn and the much-maligned Kirk Whalum.

As with Gunn's previous recordings, Love Stories is epic in scope. Sure, the ticky-tacky programmed beats distract somewhat but the music's lush flow, noirish atmospheres and gorgeous soloing maintain Gunn's typically high standards. Gunn steps back in time in "Love for Sale" led by saucy vocalist Heidi Martin's rye reading. But Love Stories is really about the dark side, even when layering Spanish guitars over a clap-happy MPC beat in the pensive "Ghandi's Love". "Bitch, You Don't Love Me"'s organ/violin pizzicato intro recalls "East St. Louis Toodle-O" as it slithers and slides. "I'm In Love with A Stripper" by rapper T-Pain couples a fat beat with a choir of heavenly synths and cooing keyboards. Matching machine flow and melodic clarity with his growing compositional mastery, Russell Gunn continues to challenge jazz convention (ordering info).

Sara Gazarek: Return to You [Native Language]
Pop singers dabbling in jazz standards are nothing new these days. Given Norah Jones' success, who can blame them? Sara Gazarak and Typhanie Monique are two such musicians as enamored of Billy Joel and Annie Lennox as any standards-slinging songwriter from the Great American Songbook. Finding a balance between the two styles is the rub. For her third album, Sara Gazarak proves why she is a Downbeat award winner. Her tart enunciation, sweet stinging tone and supple sense of swing make Return to You a treat. Joined by her excellent trio (who also arranged the tunes), Gazarak detours from a pure standards repertoire to include pop-oriented fare like a grandiose version of Paul McCartney's sublimely simple "Junk" and a Karen Akers-styled "Carey" by Joni Mitchell.

Gazarek's pianist Josh Nelson supplies some of the album's best material. "The band" also plays a very important role on Typhanie Monique and Neal Alger's In This Room. Alger's gorgeous articulate guitar playing is often the star of the recording, his virtuosity impossible to ignore as he supports Monique's lustrous chewy vocals. Here jazz is in the details, the pair skillfully interpreting material drawn from various styles. Opener "Caravan" shows the pair in perfect union, Monique soulfully scatting as Alger paints wah-wah-effected shapes. The pair does misstep -- Sting's "Set Them Free" is unnecessary by anyone's count -- but mostly, their raw swing saves the day.

Trio of Doom [Sony/Legacy]
Recorded live in Havana in 1979 but previously unreleased, Trio of Doom documents the single concert performance of Tony Williams, John McLaughlin and Jaco Pastorius as a working unit. Though studio versions of the meager 25-minute set were released as part of Havana Jam (and are included here), it is the live renditions which reveal the musicians' immediate, amazing connection. As with 1975's Believe It, Trio of Doom documents some of Tony's most fiery playing. Tracks like "Prince of Darkness" and "Are You The One" rank as consummate blast furnace examples of his pummeling tom/bass drum combinations and machine-gun snare work. Essential.

Imagine organist Jimmy Smith grooving with Portishead and Lalo Shifirin and you've got ZDDZ, funky slicers of the rope-a-dope rhythm and jive. Created by Zach Danziger, ZDDZ draws on his work with David Holmes' Oceans 12, 13 etc. soundtracks, then takes it a step further. Summoning the spirits of Bernard Purdie and Brian Bennett, Zach kicks it soul-fired and dry on "Erwin" (mildly displacing beats like silly putty), rips into 16th note funki-fi-cation absurdity on "2nd Ave. Subway" and goes Latin zombie mad with "Let Café Show You!" which is a dead ringer theme for The Gong Show hosted by a psychedelically inspired Vincent Price.

Also of note in the DVD realm:
Steve Smith's Drum Legacy Standing on the Shoulders of Giants wherein Mr. Smith performs his rendition of some of the greatest drum solos of all time with his band, Jazz Legacy. Jazz Icons' ongoing series of releases documenting concert performances from the greatest legends of jazz including Mingus, Coltrane, Ellington, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, and Dexter Gordon. Each box set includes seven DVDs and a bonus disc. This is super rare footage with excellent audio and video quality. Get with it friends!