02 August 2008

List: Best Working Groups in Jazz

One of the things I like about jazz is the ease with which total strangers can come together and play quality music with little or no rehearsal, thanks to the shared language of jazz. As a result, supergroup recordings abound in this art. If a few star performers want to get together to produce an album, the only thing standing in their way is scheduling. However, though the possibility of fantasy groupings will perpetually tantalize jazz fans, the fact remains that in jazz, the intimacy afforded by regular work together facilitates artful music. As such, much of the best jazz produced comes at the hands of a longstanding working groups, whose musicians know each other as well as they know themselves.

So without further ado, below are my favorite current working bands, in a completely random order, with a recommended recording thrown in for good measure:
  1. Dave Holland Quintet (Robin Eubanks, trombone; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, mallets; Holland, bass; Nate Smith, drums): The lineup has shifted a bit in the past few years, with Smith replacing Billy Kilson on drums, but the fact remains that this group plays some of the most exciting music in jazz. The group excels at collective improvisation, and the interplay between Eubanks and Potter is often exquisite. Check them out on Extended Play, a double live disc from 2003.
  2. Medeski Martin & Wood (John Medeski, keyboards; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion): Though some may argue that this group does not actually play jazz, I disagree. Electric or acoustic, this trio can swing with the best of them (in their inimitable way) and brings an incredible sense of energy to their music. I recommend Tonic, a live acoustic album from 2000.
  3. The Bad Plus (Ethan Iverson, piano; Reid Anderson, bass; Dave King, drums): The band has yet to release a live album in the U.S., so I've embedded a YouTube clip below of a live performance. I also heartily recommend the band's blog.
  4. Wayne Shorter Quartet (Shorter, saxophone; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums): Like many of the other bandleaders in this list, Wayne Shorter has pulled off the impressive coup of hiring sidemen who all lead stellar groups of their own. Whether reimagining Shorter's compositions or playing newer material, this quartet is not afraid to explore and reach outside of their comfort zone to produce great art. Shorter's quartet excels on the live discs Footprints Live! and Beyond the Sound Barrier.
  5. Void (Troy Roberts, saxophone; Tom O'Hallaran, keys; Dane Alderson, bass; Andrew Fisenden, drums): You probably have not heard of them, but this group from Australia can play. They do not perform regularly anymore (which should disqualify them from the list, but I make the rules, so they're in), but when they do get together, it is an event of epic proportions. Check out their website, and give them a listen.
  6. Pat Metheny Trio (Metheny, guitar; Christian McBride, bass; Antonio Sanchez, drums): As I've written in this space before, Pat Metheny thrives in the trio setting due in no small part to the fact that he can surround himself with some of the best musicians around. I saw this trio play in Gainesville, Florida in 2005, and it totally hooked me on Metheny. I had never been a huge fan of his, but after seeing him live (for $10 - thanks UF student government!), I could not get enough Metheny. Be sure to check out the recent live EP Tokyo Day Trip.
  7. Keith Jarrett Standards Trio (Jarrett, piano; Gary Peacock, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums): When Jarrett is not being an insufferable ass, this group produces more moements of surprise and genius with well-worn standards in one night than most groups could hope to make over a career. Along with Wynton Marsalis' championing of standards around the same time, this group made standards cool again, and we have them to thank for reinvigorating the genre. They have so many quality live performances out there for sale, but two of my favorite are Whisper Not, from 2000, and Inside Out, from 2001.
The Bad Plus: Flim

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