Critics' Awards 1999 - Jazz: That's quite enough of looking to the past

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The Independent Culture
In 1999 what had been threatening for years actually happened: the ghost of jazz past all but obliterated the present. This wasn't surprising - the cumulative weight of a music which began at the same time as the century itself had been pressing down ever since the CD reissue boom of the late 1980s - but it was the centenary of Duke Ellington that finally tipped the scales. Tribute concerts by Wynton Marsalis at the Barbican, a special weekend at the South Bank and other festschrifts too numerous to mention all honoured the Duke, but left little room for anything else.

As justified as all the hoo-hah was, it's difficult not to feel ambivalent about this fetishisation of the past and about the centenary-fever which inevitably accompanies it. After all, it's a manifestation of the dead hand of respectability that one normally associates with classical music, a genre in which there's 500 years worth of dead people's birthdays to celebrate. Surely the best tribute to the Duke was going on anyway: there's hardly a jazz band in the world which doesn't play at least one of his tunes. Now we face the next century with a whole catalogue of anniversaries looming over us: Louis Armstrong in 2001, Count Basie and Coleman Hawkins in 2004, Billie Holiday in 2015, Dizzy Gillespie in 2017 and right on up to Miles Davis in 2026.

There were anniversaries for clubs and record labels too: Ronnie Scott's 40th; Blue Note's 60th, and ECM's 30th. It was also the 80th birthday of jazz in Britain (the Original Dixieland Jazz Band played London and Liverpool in 1919), but nobody seemed to remember that one except Jim Godbolt from Ronnie Scores, the conscience of the jazz race.

With so much attention paid to the past, the shock of the new was at a disadvantage from the start. Two elderly avant-gardists - Max Roach and Cecil Taylor - came to the Barbican in January and acquitted themselves fairly well, although it still felt rather like a history lesson. Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble at last made their long-awaited follow- up to the best-selling album Officium; while it was good, nobody will lose sleep waiting for the next one.

Although 1999 continued the resurgence of European jazz that has been a feature of the last decade, the best performances I saw during the year were both by Americans. The New York composer, singer and guitarist Arto Lindsay, who toured with his band for the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network, was astonishingly good, but for many people it wouldn't have been jazz at all; more Brazilian-punk-noise-thrash. The trumpeter Dave Douglas, however, was definitely kosher. Playing the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in April, sandwiched between Ellington tributes and Latin fusion, Douglas and his Tiny Bell Trio lit up the room with a performance of such compulsive power and wit that you really did feel that jazz was new again.

As a trumpeter, Douglas has everything. He can blow the house down with bravura solos that bring Louis Armstrong to mind, then deconstruct a hoary old standard in playful postmodern style before rifling off a classical pastiche of Robert Schumann. His drummer Jim Black was the most intelligent percussionist I've seen for an age, although happily it didn't feel like it: he even played a solo on what someone next to me confidently pronounced was a penis-enlarger. By the end of the set, jazz had been reborn, worthy centenaries seemed a century away, and you were left grinning from ear to ear. Try recapturing that in a hundred years.

Previous winners

1991 Miles Davis

1992 Tony Williams

1993 Us 3

1994 John Surman

1995 Sonny Rollins

1996 Nikki Yeoh

1997 Tomaz Stanko

1998 Jan Garbarek