Albums of the Year: Phil Johnson's top jazz records of 1997

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After the huge success of the superficially unlikely Officium - chilly sax improvisations meet plainsong chants in a monastery - by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble three years ago, the German label ECM continued to dominate in a year when Euro-jazz beat the Americans at their own game. Litania - Music of Krzysztof Komeda (ECM) by the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his septet was the album of the year. Based on themes by Roman Polanski's first soundtrack composer, including music from Knife On The Water and Rosemary's Baby, the sublime, continually repeated motifs of Stanko's re-arrangements offer a beguiling mixture of Northern European Gothic and quiet, stately jazz in the cool-school tradition. While you might not be able to dance to it, it's great to smoke cigarettes and look thoughtfully off into the middle distance to.

Angel Song, also on ECM, by the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler was the latest and perhaps the best of a whole series of excellent albums he has made for the label. Like Stanko, Wheeler favours melancholy themes that are worked and re-worked through the small group's round of improvisations until they take on a kind of burnished glow. Last year, the English saxophonist Julian Arguelles released the

amazing solo album Scapes, which sounded like music for a film that didn't yet exist. This year's effort, The Skull View (Babel), is a series of arrangements for octet (with Django Bates on tenor horn and Mike Walker on guitar) and though it's less immediately impressive, it kicks in after a few listens very effectively. One wonders, however, what bigger budget ECM-style production might have brought to it.

With Beauty of Sunrise (Verve), the South African pianist Bheki Mseleku returned surprisingly to a kind of hard bop style, complete with thrumming riffs, heroic old-school solos (from Ravi Coltrane, John's son, among others) and a retro, Blue Note-era feel to the material, in a way that was very satisfying.

The combination of Franco-American pianist Jacky Terrasson and vocalist Cassandra Wilson on Rendezvous (Blue Note) was wonderfully apt. Although the album had, one felt, limited ambitions (perhaps marking time before there's a new Wilson set next year), Terrasson's vampings on both acoustic and electric piano and Wilson's deep-voiced readings of off-centre standards like The Old Devil Moon, Little Girl Blue and Tennessee Waltz are more than enough to be getting on with.

John Surman's Proverbs and Songs (ECM) may not be to everyone's tastes, as it takes a rather liturgical bent to appreciate its Old Testament libretto, but this live recording from a 1996 Salisbury Festival commission for Surman and the eighty-strong voices of the Festival Chorus, is so unusual as to merit serious consideration.

Another English reeds player, the great Tony Coe, excels on In Concert (ABCD 6), a live recording with pianist John Horler and bassist Malcolm Creese. Their version of the most recorded tune in jazz, Body and Soul, must count as one of the best interpretations ever.

The American big guns were represented successfully this year by Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny's limpidly beautiful Above the Missouri Sky (Verve), Joe Henderson's George Gershwin centennial celebration, Porgy and Bess (Verve), and the Various Artists 2-CD live recording Eastwood After Hours (Malpaso), with the Carnegie Hall big band and a host of guest stars playing tribute to Clint.

Finally, in place of the Bible and Shakespeare, I'd happily take just two reissues, the reeds player Tony Scott's mid-Sixties classic, Music For Zen Meditation (Verve), and a wonderful compilation of early Seventies Brazilian jazz, Quartin, on Far Out Recordings (Faro 019CD).