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2010, My Year in Jazz

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

I felt a bit intimidated when asked to write a list of my top five jazz albums for 2010. There were so many albums released this year that I didn’t listen to, and so many that I could have listened to if I had more money and time and knowledge. That limitation, I thought, might make my list incomplete, unworthy, ill-conceived.

I still wanted to make a list, and did. But I scrapped it—it didn’t feel right. And I thought, perhaps, I could make another sort of top five list.

I don’t think I will remember this year in jazz for its recordings. That is not to discredit this year’s recordings. There were too many good ones. But I think I will remember 2010 as the year I most actively involved jazz with my life—as not just a year in jazz, but my year in jazz.

In the list that follows—including five short vignettes highlighting some memorable personal experiences of 2010—I hope you see why. Also, the list is not a ranking, but a chronology:

1. Thank You, Lewis Porter

I e-mailed jazz historian Lewis Porter last February, without ever having met him, to ask a favor: Could he help me do something—anything—jazz-related in the summer? He could.

Lewis, a great pianist and author, leads the Master’s Program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. He told me I could take a summer class with him (even though I am an undergraduate). I did. He told me I could study with Ben Ratliff. I did. Lewis helped me out so much without ever even meeting me. When I finally met him in class, I felt like I already knew him. I hope someday to be as kind as he is.

2. Should I Write That Down?

This summer, I spent ten weeks studying jazz criticism with New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff. During that time, he invited me to see a show he was reviewing: Evan Christopher at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. I would review it, too, but not for the paper. Sitting in the theatre with him, the show starting, I felt like I was watching him peripherally as much as the musicians before me on stage.

Ben and I both had notebooks, and when he wrote something, I wondered what I had missed, or deemed unimportant. During the intermission, he told me that he was having trouble concentrating, for personal reasons. So was I, I guessed. A few days later, I read his review in the paper. No sign of trouble there.

3. Having Patience for Beauty

I have trouble expressing my emotions to others, especially girls. Maybe that’s why I listen to ballad love songs so often—because, if it were possible, I would sing “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or “Midnight Sun” or “Body and Soul” or “Misty” to every girl I fell in love with. (Think of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You.)

I used to find those songs too slow, soporific. But now they make me feel romantic and starry-eyed. The first song to really make me feel that way, this summer, was John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman’s 1963 version of “My One and Only Love”.

Some songs making me feel that way now: Etta Jones’s “Till There Was You”; Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley’s “The Masquerade is Over”; Billie Holiday’s “Crazy He Calls Me”; Ray Charles’s “A Fool For You”.

4. Those Jazz Robots: So Killing, So Crushing

You’ve probably seen this video before. I didn’t find it that funny at first. But I couldn’t stop watching it, and I started to laugh more after a few views. When that happens, you show your friends. My friends don’t listen to jazz too often, but they know I do. So, as they told me after, what they really found funny was that I found the video funny.

“The shed” sort of confused them. They liked the “killing” and the “crushing” the most. I did, too. So we started using it—too often perhaps. Can a McDonald’s burger be “crushing”? It seemed possible at the time.

5. Chez Montreal

Listening to jazz is often a solitary act, for two primary reasons: one, you probably don’t have anyone else to listen with, and two, jazz demands much introspection. This year, I’ve seen a lot of live jazz, thanks primarily to the folks here at Nextbop, who have sent me off to review so many great jazz shows in Montreal.

The best thing you can do for jazz is see it live. Also, if you care about jazz, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself: jazz is a performance art. This year, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection—writing demands it. But enjoying jazz seems less and less like a solitary act. Although I didn’t know most of them, I enjoyed live jazz with so many people this year.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.