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Noon Edition

Night Lights Best Of 2009: Music Edition

On the heels of this week's show (devoted exclusively to reissues and historical releases) here are ten artists and/or labels and anthologies, presented in alphabetical order:

1. Darcy James Argue, Infernal Machines

Listening to from the opening minute on of the first track, "Phobos," we know we're in the presence of a composer and arranger who digs both Radiohead and Gil Evans. (Evans himself was no stranger to mixing rock influences with big band.) But Argue's approach is no marketing gimmick. It's an attempt to extend the work of mentors like Bob Brookmeyer while at the same time acknowledging the value, pleasure, and organic effect of the alternative-music culture in which many of us have grown up.

2. Josh Berman, Old Idea

Another bright light from the seemingly inexhaustible Chicago jazz scene. Berman's cornet influences range from Bill Dixon to Ruby Braff, and I hear a fair amount of Don Cherry in his groupthink on this album, where vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz adds a moody, early-60s Bobby Hutcherson feel to the proceedings. Berman's Chi-town running mate saxophonist Keefe Jackson provides deceptively quiet fire as well.

3. Von Freeman, Vonski Speaks

The senior Chicago generation checks in: this 2002 concert finds tenor saxophonist Von Freeman once again unspooling long lines of improvisation steeped in old-school mastery. We should all hope to do anything as well at the age of 80+ as Mr. Freeman does playing saxophone. "Darn That Dream" is a ballad tour de force for the bittersweet bite of his sound.

4. Melody Gardot, My One and Only Thrill

An updated take on Julie London/Jeri Southern/Sinatra's torch-jazz albums of the 1950s, there's more than one thrill to Melody Gardot. She writes her own songs, for one thing, and they are strong enough to stand up to the beautifully-brooding, subtle strings and settings provided by producer Larry Klein.

5. Freddie Hubbard, Without a Song: Live in Europe 1969

The trumpeter Freddie Hubbard helped to put together this concert compilation not long before his death. He drew from several quartet dates with a killer rhythm section: pianist Roland Hanna, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Louis Hayes. Full of relaxed intensity, the 31-year-old Hubbard sails through five standards and two originals at the peak of his powers.

6. Vijay Iyer, Historicity

Yes, yes, just like Infernal Machines it's on everybody's best-of list, but sometimes the conventional wisdom's right, dammit. Vijay Iyer's joyously percussive lyricism and his trio's fluid snap catch the vibe of jazz in the Information Age. Plus this record makes me smile simply on the basis of reviving Andrew Hill's "Smoke Stack" alone.

7. Various artists, Spiritual Jazz: Esoteric, Modal + Deep Jazz From the Underground 1968-77

In this programmer's humble opinion, this album is the overlooked gem of the year. An extensively documented anthology, it outlines the immediate post-Coltrane landscape in American underground jazz in the 1970s for yet more evidence (as if we needed any more) of that decade's jazz fertility. If you're at all into Sun Ra and/or grooving collective jazz, check this one out.

8. The Mosaic label

The Rolls-Royce of jazz reissue labels delved deep into the swing era this past year with Louis Armstrong and Artie Shaw collections. They've also put out a treasure trove of previously-unreleased 1950s small-group Bing Crosby recordings. Smaller 3-CD sets chronicled the mid-1960s modernist doings of pianist Denny Zeitlin and saxophonist John Handy.

9. The Nessa label

Where to start? Chuck Nessa, the godfather of avant-garde jazz producers, was busy this past year. He reissued some fantastic titles by Charles Tyler, Wadada Leo Smith, Bobby Bradford and John Stevens, Lester Bowie, and Roscoe Mitchell. All of it is great music made by artists of great integrity. Jazz fans everywhere are in Mr. Nessa's debt for first recording it, then making it available again (a true labor of love, believe me).

10. The Uptown label

Another label with several strong releases this past year, Uptown has followed their standard pattern, digging up broadcasts and live dates that often highlight some of the music's most perennially underrated performers. Saxophonist Lucky Thompson, lost-legend trumpeter Dupree Bolton, and Kenny Dorham (in his early-1960s incarnation with Joe Henderson, no less) all received superlative new entries in their hardbop discographies in 2009 via Uptown.

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