With Springsteen and Dylan both releasing new CDs in 2009, you would think that would simplify my choices for album of the year. But Working on a Dream ranks as a below average Springsteen release and I’m enough of a Grinch that even Dylan doesn’t make me want to buy a CD of Christmas songs. (I would note in my defense that Amazon placed the Dylan CD 10th on its list of the best comedy albums of 2009.)
This year’s recordings, in fact, led me to somewhat modify one of the rules I’ve used in the past in selecting my favorites of the year. I usually don’t consider live albums because they tend to be contain almost exclusively previously released music. Yet this year my three favorite albums were live recordings. Applying the rule’s intent led to my favorite album being selected somewhat by default — but that in no way means it wasn’t at the top of the list anyway.
Five Peace Band Live isn’t excluded by the live album rule because this is not a band that released prior recordings. Rather this two-CD set comes from a series of 2008 European concerts by Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Christian McBride, Kenny Garrett, and Vinnie Colaiuta. Bitches Brew and Corea would go on to form Return to Forever while McLaughlin would head up the Mahavishnu Orchestra. This album has a sense of each of those bands while Kenny Garrett’s exceptional sax work gives a feel for Weather Report. For whatever reason, Garrett had not previously crossed my radar — at least to my knowledge — and this CD makes me a big fan.
The music on album is among the best fusion I’ve heard in years. Yet it doesn’t stop there. Along the way the band provides some excellent traditional, bop, post-bop and even free jazz moments. I don’t have any qualms saying it contains some stunning performances and music. The CD is among the nominees for the Grammy Award for best instrumental jazz album. From my perspective, it was and is a thoroughly enjoyable slice of elements of jazz that enthrall me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two other albums that were top contenders but fell subject to the previously recorded rule.
One is Live from Madison Square Garden by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. This arguably could have qualified for an exception because although the music was previously released, the only band in which Clapton and Winwood performed and released music together was 1969’s “supergroup,” Blind Faith.
Live from Madison Square Garden is deserving of recognition in a couple respects. First, of course, is the quality of the performances. If anyone wonders if Clapton or Winwood have lost any of their chops over the years, a listen to this two-CD set will dispel any questions. Second, the performance includes most of the songs from the Blind Faith album, strongly reminding a listener of the strength of their songwriting even 40 years ago. In fact, the performance of “Can’t Find My Way Home” on this CD has a Grammy nomination for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals. Finally, once you throw in some Traffic, Derek & the Dominoes and solo release material and then top it off with great renditions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and “Voodoo Chile,” it’s hard not to love this album. It quite deservedly garnered a nomination for the Grammy Award for best rock album.
The third live album I loved this year was clearly disqualified by my prior release rule. Return to Forever gathered for a reunion tour and ultimately released Returns, a two-CD set of music from that tour.
Return to Forever is perhaps my favorite fusion band of all time. In fact, their concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in (probably) 1976 remains to this day one of the best concerts I have seen. I was utterly amazed at not only their talent but the ability of four individuals to generate so much and such powerful music. Much of the music I heard at that concert appears on this release and the talent is plainly still there. Because the tunes were previously released, I considered it ineligible for my album of the year. But the music remains so superb and well-performed that it would be wrong not to include it in looking back at my year in music.
In light of what made my “best of” list this year, there’s one other thing I should mention in looking back at the year. I thought about but didn’t get to either the Clapton-Winwood or the Return to Forever performances in Omaha. It just goes to show that regardless of how excellent the music may be, the listener can make decisions he or she will come to regret.
It’s almost “illegal” what this band of geniuses gets into nightly.
Chick Corea on the Five Peace Band (Nov. 3, 2008)